Twelve Cheeses of Christmas

Pied-de-Vent from the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

With 12 outstanding cheeses to enjoy during the holidays, we’ve never had a Christmas quite like this one.

It all started when Significant Other and I decided to present cheese plates instead of sweets for dessert at our house, and to take cheese to friends as gifts. As a result, here’s what we tasted (after spending a small fortune on almost eight kilograms of cheese), sort of in the order of our preference:

1) Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage

After we finished our list of planned purchases at Chris’s Cheesemongers in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, we asked, Geoff, our favorite cheesemonger there, what he’d recommend that would blow our socks off. He didn’t hesitate: “Beaufort,” and gave us a taste. As soon as the cheese melted in my mouth, I didn’t hesitate either. “We’ll take it,” I said, motioning to the slab he held in his hand, not even asking what the weight and cost were.

Beaufort, specifically Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, is an amazing raw cow’s milk cheese that comes from the Alpine corner of France bordering Italy. The term “chalet d’alpage” applies to cheese made from summer milk of Tarantaise cows that graze in mountain pastures above an altitude of 1,500 metres, with the milk coming from a single herd in the chalet property.

Beaufort Chalet d'Alpage from Haute-Savoie.

Beaufort has a natural smear rind and is immediately recognizable by its inwardly-curving sides. While a young Beaufort is said to impart a mild, fruity, sweet flavor, the Chalet d’Alpage variety that we had is aged longer and develops a lovely, rounded, more savory note. It’s rich and flavorful, apparently because the pasturing is done high up in the mountains. Think unpolluted summer pastures scattered with alpine flowers under clear blue skies.

2) Epoisses Berthaut

When we weren’t certain of finding Pied-de-Vent, one of our favorites, we asked Christie at Leslieville Cheese Market East in Toronto what she would recommend as a substitute.

Epoisses, from Burgundy in France, was an excellent choice for something creamy and powerful. It’s a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese with a natural red tint and it’s own rich and penetrating aroma to which it owes its renown. The mouth waters as I type.

3) Pied-de-Vent

We’ve been huge fans of Pied-de-Vent even before we visited the enchanting Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Smelly, creamy and tasty, Pied-de-Vent is our idea of the perfect cheese.

When you buy it right at the creamery overlooking the sea, the cheese has a fresh and mild flavor, but distinctive nevertheless. By the time Pied-de-Vent is sold in Ontario, it can be quite strong, almost pungent.

As our friend Matt said, Pied-de-Vent is “great on its own but ignited when paired with pears or fig jelly.”

4) Blue Benedictin

In the words of Matt’s brother Will, “This is perhaps the best blue I have ever had!” As Matt himself said, “It’s a beautiful, mild blue, great on its own but divine with honey.”

Made by the monks at Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Blue Benedictin is our favorite blue. Not as sharp a Roquefort (which we prefer in salads for that reason), but divine in so many ways.

Let it melt on your tongue and you’ll be taken away to the rolling green landscape around the monastery, propped up against a shade tree on a late afternoon in the summer, listening to the rise and fall of the monastic chant during Vespers.

Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, home of Benedictine Blue (and the milder l'Eremite).

5) Blue Haze

Blue Haze is also made by the monks at St. Benoit du Lac, aged at Provincial Fine Foods in Toronto, and then smoked by Hansen Farms in Cayuga, Ontario. It’s essentially the same cheese as Blue Benedictin but the end result is a testament  to how the aging process—affinage—is everything when it comes to cheesemaking.

“If cheese could walk, Blue Haze would swagger,” Sue Riedl famously wrote in The Globe and Mail. “The rock ‘n’ roll-inspired name sets the tone for this blue cheese with a smoky edge and creamy base . . . the golden brown rind that develops when it’s smoked (over cherry and hickory chips) imparts the exterior ‘crust’ with a burnt caramel quality. The sweetness of the smoke is a perfect counterpart to the salty, buttermilk quality of the blue.”

Blue Haze might be a bit strong for the lightweights among cheese lovers.

6) Midsummer’s Night

“Midsummer’s Night, what kind of cheese is that?” you ask. It’s a caraway-speckled fresh cheese that I make at home.

In Latvian, my native language, it’s called “Janu siers”, literally, John’s cheese in English. In Latvia, for more than a thousand years, it has been made at the summer solstice to mark the midsummer festival of Jani. For this Christmas, I decided to start a new tradition and make it also on the winter solstice. It’s too good to eat only once every year. More, in a later post.

7) Migneron
8  Ciel de Charlevoix
9) Secret du Maurice

It wasn’t our plan to select three cheeses from one cheesemaker but when we returned home after shopping at four different cheese shops, we realized that La Maison d’Affinage Maurice Dufour dominated the pickings. And for good reason.

When affineur Maurice Dufour introduced Migneron in 1995, it’s popular success was key to launching the artisan cheese revolution in Quebec. It’s smooth as ivory, rich and buttery, tasting of the pastoral Baie-Saint-Paul region of Quebec.

Ciel de Charlevoix, a silky, earthy blue, is made from the milk of a single herd of cows and aged to perfection by Maurice Dufour. We found it growing stronger and stronger over two weeks in our refrigerator.

But the big find—thanks to Jeremy at A Taste of Quebec in Toronto’s Distillery District—was a unique goat’s milk cheese, Le Secret de Maurice.

When you unwrap it, you’ll see a circle slightly larger than a twoonie in the middle of the small wheel. With a sharp knife, cut out the circle, exposing the cheese. Dip with plain cracker or white bread and enjoy.

“What fun!” said friend Matt. “This cheese (would be) the talk of (any) party with everything but the kitchen sink being dipped into it. Actually, my favorite was dipping cured meats.”

10) Grey Owl

Another fine goat’s milk cheese from Quebec, Grey Owl provides a brilliant, strong flavor, not quite as sharp as Blue Haze or as rich as Le Secret.

It’s a striking cheese to add to a spread, and not only on account of it’s punchy taste. It’s a thing of beauty because of the way the white interior paste contrasts with the grey ash-covered rind—and thus gives the cheese its name.

11) Pag

Don’t look for Pag at your cheesemonger. You need Croatian friends, like our Ivan and Maria, to bring it over.

It’s a lovely sheep’s milk cheese that comes from the windswept island of Pag in the Adriatic Sea. Hard and flaky, it truly melts on the tongue, imparting the taste of sage and cypress, somewhere between an Oka and a Parmigiano Reggiano.

It’s said to be the best cheese of Croatia and, at least by Croatians, to be one of the best cheeses in the world.

12) Oka

Oka, my first love in cheese.

Yes, I know. What’s an industrial product (as opposed to hand-made cheese) doing on a cheese lover’s list? Simply because it was my first love almost 50 years ago, and despite the fact Trappists no longer make it, Oka has been my one constant companion all these years. Still mild, still buttery, still nutty, still delightful.

There you have it, the 12 cheeses of Christmas at our house this year.

Leave a comment, if you like, about the memorable cheeses of your Christmas.

At home with the Pristines of Cheese Boutique

Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique in Toronto.

What cheese will the Pristine family, the preeminent cheesemongers in Toronto, enjoy at home during Christmas?

“It’s impossible to say until it’s seven o’clock on Christmas Eve, we’ve closed the shop and I’m standing at the cheese counter to see what’s left—and what’s really ripe and ready,” says Afrim Pristine, one of four brothers who operate Cheese Boutique with their parents, Fatos and Modesta Pristine. “I can tell you it will be absolutely incredible, and there might be white or black ruffles shaved on top.”

With close to 750 cheeses to choose from at this time of the year, Afrim has the difficulty of choice that the rest of us can only dream of.

“My father usually opens a big northern Italian red at home, so a Parmigiano Reggiano that we’ve aged to six years would make the table,” Afrim says, noting that in his opinion it’s “the best cheese in the world.”

Then there would be a goat cheese—”I just love goat’s milk cheese”—from Quebec, or the Loire Valley of France which has been ripening at Cheese Boutique for 90 days to be ready for Christmas: “It will be phenomenal, so luscious, ripe, acidic.”

With 25 people on hand for the Pristine family Christmas, Afrim says he’ll aim to have something for every palate: “You have to contrast the flavours so you offer the best of all worlds.”

Quite definitely the table will include “a very rich and very creamy triple creme from Burgundy or Normandy where all the good ripe triple cremes come from. That will be a great time to shave some white or black truffles.”

Stilton blue cheese and port wine is “a classic combination” at Christmas, say Afrim, but he might serve Cabrales, the famed blue from Spain.

How will the cheese be served? “Really simply, really rustically, because cheese shouldn’t be taken out of its element.”

It will be a happy Christmas for the Pristines as holiday business has been good this year. Unlike last year, Afrim says, shoppers “can see the beauty of a $25 piece of cheese. We can’t keep the high-end stuff in the store.”

If you’re not familiar with the Pristines and their influence on the cheese and gourmet food scene, there’s an excellent feature in Toronto Life that tells all.

Holy Lactococcus Lactis!

Wisconsin, which produces more cheese than any other state in the U.S., has given preliminary approval to a bill that will name the bacterium that converts milk into cheese as the official state microbe.

It’s called lactococcus lactis and is pictured at right.

“We call those people who oppose it lactose intolerant,” joked Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), who presented the bill to the Committee on State Affairs and Homeland Security on Thursday. The committee voted 7-1 in favor of the bill. It will likely head to the full Assembly in January.

Supporters say the bill may seem silly but it has its merits.

“We want people to know that as a result of this little microbe, we are able to produce these things for Wisconsin, and it’s a tremendous backbone to our industrial complex,” said Hebl.

Plus, establishing a state microbe could spark national attention.

“It doesn’t cost anything to have a state microbe, but it really is a great advertising tool so that we can sell what Wisconsin is really great at to the world,” said Hebl.

Wisconsin’s cheese-making industry generates $18 billion a year. That’s twice as much as the citrus industry in Florida, and seven times as much as potatoes in Idaho. Wisconsin ranks first in cheese production in the U.S., producing 2.5 billion pounds of cheese annually, or 26 per cent of total output. California is second at 23 percent while Idaho is third at 8 percent.

In other cheese news this week . . . two shoppers needed hospital treatment after they fought a pitched battle in a supermarket in Germany with salami used as clubs and Parmesan cheese brandished like a dagger.

Cheese Lover’s Guide to Ontario East

Quebec has a cheese trail to delight the senses. Why not Ontario?

With 24 cheesemakers in the province east of Toronto, you could easily spend two weeks on the road tasting your way to bliss. Check out what we’re billing–Drum roll: Ta dah!–as the Cheese Lover’s Guide to Ontario East:

Click on “View Larger Map” for a legend showing the cheesemakers. Then start planning your tour to taste some of the finest cheese made in Ontario.

Here’s where to find the other Ontario cheesemakers:

When you visit a cheesemaker, in Ontario or elsewhere, share your experience by leaving a comment below.

Best cheeses in the “British Empire”

Cape Vessey, Grand Champion of the 2009 British Empire Cheese Competition.

Petra Cooper’s leap of faith into cheesemaking is being rewarded with much critical acclaim. Her Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, since it started operations in July 2008 in Prince Edward County, has won more awards than any other artisanal or homestead cheesemaker in Ontario, possibly in all Canada.

On the heels of Fifth Town’s Isabella being named Grand Champion Goat Cheese at the 2009 Royal Winter Fair Cheese Competition came news last week that Cape Vessey was named Grand Champion of the British Empire Cheese Competition.

What’s remakable is that in being named Grand Champion a goat-milk cheese beat cow-milk cheeses from many of Canada’s leading cheese producers. Kudos to Stephanie Diamant, the veteran cheesemaker at Fifth Town.

Additionally, Fifth Town took home first-places in Artisan Sheep Milk Cheese with Bonnie & Floyd, in Artisan Goat Milk Cheese with Petal Luna, in Sheep Milk Cheese with Wishing Tree and in Goat Milk Cheese with Cape Vessey. As a result of those four wins, Fifth Town also was presented with the overall award in goat and sheep milk cheesemaking.

Not a bad haul for someone who gave up a career as a high-powered book publishing executive a few years ago to put her all into cheese.

La Raclette was named Reserve Champion.

The Reserve Champion at the annual British Empire judging event in Belleville, Ontario, was Raclette du Village made by La Fromagerie 1860 du Village, a division of the giant Saputo conglomerate.

Here are all British Empire winners in specialty cheeses:

Artisan Goat Milk Cheese: Petal Luna, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Artisan Sheep Milk Cheese: Bonnie & Floyd, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Goat Milk Cheese: Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Sheep Milk Cheese: Wishing Tree, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Hard Cheese: Romano Wheel, Saputo

Firm Cheese: Fontina Prestigio, Agropur

Swiss Cheese: L’Artisan, Agropur

Semi-Firm Cheese: Raclette du Village, La Fromagerie 1860 du Village

Fresh Cheese: Ricotta, International Cheese

Soft Rind Cheese: Roubine de Noyan, CDA Fromagerie

Smear Ripened Cheese: Le Formier, Alexis De Portneuf

Flavoured Soft Cheese: Red Wine Cold Pack, Maple Dale Cheese

Flavoured Firm Cheese: Double Smoked Cheddar, Parmalat

Blue Veined Cheese: Caronzola, Alexis De Portneuf

American Style: Monterey Jack, Bothwell Cheese

Pasta Filata: Bocconcini, International Cheese

Process Cheese: Smoked Gouda, Saputo

Reserve Champion: Raclette du Village, La Fromagerie 1860 Du Village

Grand Champion: Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

The Grand Champion Cheddar comes from P.E.I.

British Empire Cheese Competition features judging in six categories of cheddar. The two big winners were:

Reserve Champion: Pine River Cheese

Grand Champion: Amalgamated Dairies

These are best cheeses as selected by experts in the dairy industry. I wonder who the winners would be if cheese lovers like you and me had our say?


Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano at bargain prices

Giovanni Adamo is cheese manager at La Bottega in Ottawa.

The Special of the Week flyer from La Bottega Fine Food Shop was sent to me by a faithful reader too late for me personally to make the drive to Ottawa by Sunday but perhaps others can take advantage of what is being billed as a Parmigiano Reggiano “super special.” Indeed, that it is.

Until Sunday, Bottega is offering real-deal Parmigiano from Reggiano at $2.20 per 100 grams or $21.99 a kilogram. That’s about half-price of what Parmigiano Reggiano generally sells for in Ontario.

The only retailer that comes close to the Bottega price, as far as I know, is our neighbourhood Costco, bless its multinational soul, which has Parmigiano priced at $25.39 a kilo. Costco, like Bottega, offers it in one-kilo pieces. Costco’s supplier is Ambrosi while Bottega’s is made by Agriform. Both are biggies in Reggiano cheese production in Italy.

Pat Nicastro, proprietor of Bottega, says the Parmigiano Reggiano on sale is “a fantastic Scelto-quality Reggiano dated December 2007, aged 24 months.” (Scelto means specially selected in Italian.) Bottega orders the cheese by the pallet from its supplier where its ranks as the biggest customer. “We are both driving important year-end sales. We are passing on the savings to our customers.”

La Bottega is located in Ottawa’s Byward Market. It carries 200 types of cheese from around the world—plus every Italian delicacy imaginable.

Cheese that is certified as Parmigiano Reggiano is strictly linked to a specific geographical area in Italy. Milk production and its process into cheese takes place in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (on the left side of Reno river) and Mantua (on the right side of Po River). Click here for information about the consortium that regulates Parmigiano Reggiano.

For a gorgeous video on how the King of Italian Cheese is made—and has been made for 800+ years—click here.

Pecorino Romano saves lives

Traditionally, the salted rind of Pecorino Romano is painted black.

OK, I’m stretching journalistic licence somewhat with that headline but the fact of the matter is that a joint Italian-American study reveals even small amounts of Pecorino Romano protect against arteriosclerosis and contain anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties.

The Universities of Sassari and Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy) in conjunction with a team of doctors from the United States, announced this week the results of a six-year long research study confirming that Pecorino or sheep’s-milk cheese contains high amounts of CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), an Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid naturally found in certain food groups and which shows bioactive properties for humans.

The study, conducted in Sardinia from 2003 to 2009 confirms the health benefits of CLA, including “reducing fat, suppressing diabetes, preserving muscle tissue and inhibiting tumor growths on the skin, mammary glands and stomach.”

Wow! Almost makes me rush out and buy the stuff.

CLA is found primarily in milk and dairy products and in the meat of ruminants: sheep, goats, lamb, cattle. Results are highest when ruminants are fed on fresh grass.

The study found that the “regular, ongoing consumption of Pecorino cheese, as part of a balanced and calorically correct diet, contributes a set of bioactive elements capable of significantly reducing the risk factors associated with eating habits in Western countries. Such as cardiovascular diseases, the enhancement of the immune defenses, the proven anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties.”

Why Pecorino? Grass-fed sheep produce a high level of CLA. It is the grazing grass that gives the product its unique nutritional and therapeutic properties. In Sardinia, a region where more than 50% of the farmland is used as pastures, the sheep are fed more than 80% of daily intake with fresh grass, and the livestock techniques used guarantee respect of the animals and their well-being.

“High amounts of combined linoleic acid are a natural byproduct, and not produced through sophisticated, artificial processes or through genetic modifications. The more the sheep feed on grass pasture, the greater the concentration of unsaturated fatty acids in the Omega-3 family and CLA in products made from their milk. Obviously these benefits are added to the other common benefits of milk, such as the presence of calcium and branched amino acids that are especially important in combating osteopenia or osteoporosis in post-menopausal women and in combating overweight and obesity. Pecorino Romano cheese can be eaten even by those who are lactose intolerant. In addition, to protecting the coronary arteries and protecting against arteriosclerosis, CLA has important immunostimulant, anti-tumor, antioxidant and anti-diabetic properties.”

OK, that does it! Out the door I go, but as my nearest cheesemonger is more than an hour away, I end up at a neighbourhood supermarket where I find Romano cheese, without Pecorino cited, under the Tre Stelle brand, part of the Arla Foods conglomerate. The label says the cheese is made in Italy and the ingredients listed are sheep’s-milk cheese—pecorino, in Italian, from the word for sheep, pecora—and bacterial culture, salt and rennet. It costs $3.92 per 100 grams.

I give it 90 minutes to come up to temperature and then pop a chunk into my waiting mouth. Not bad, but a tad salty, which is why Pecorino Romano is primarily used for grating. It’s sort of like a Parmigiano-Reggiano but in a sheep’s-milk kind of way: sharp and earthy, yellowish white. With a Niagara merlot at hand, several additional pieces find their way into my mouth. Doesn’t quite melt on the tongue like the best Reggiano does, but I’m certain it will go well—for about two-thirds the price—with the tomato sauce I’ll make for pasta tonight.