Best bites: Outstanding cheeses of 2013

Ruckles from Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. Photo: Bob Chelmick.

Ruckles from Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. Photo: Bob Chelmick.

We bring the curtain down on 2013 with friends in fromage recalling the memorable cheeses that crossed their palates this year. In alphabetical order, mainly, here are 22 outstanding cheeses of the year just ending—plus new Canadian fondues and a pilgrimage cheese lovers must make.

Flavoured cheeses

It is surprising, even to me, that two of my three faves of 2013 are flavoured cheeses, which to me is a testimony to high-quality cheesemaking. Flavours that meld with the cheese substrate where the cheese and the flavour counterpart do a sublime dance.
—Janice Beaton, Owner, Janice Beaton Fine Cheese, FARM Restaurant

Ruckles, Salt Spring Island Cheese Company
David Wood knocks it out of the park, again. In a sea of so many pedestrian offerings of marinated goat cheese, Ruckles is in class all its own. Firm yet silkily textured cylinders of cheese are bathed in grapeseed oil which is speckled with a mix of thyme, rosemary, chives and garlic, in perfect proportion.

Chili Pecorino, The Cheesiry
The Chili Pecorino is one of my favourite offerings from Rhonda Zuk Headon’s repertoire. The balance of chilis embedded in this toothsome cheese provides a gentle heat that lingers on the palate while the nutty, olive flavour of this sheep milk cheese still holds its own. Not an easy accomplishment but Rhonda pulls it off!

Cheese fondues

Cheese fondue, the melted-cheese dish popular some years ago, is making a comeback—but without the classic ingredients of Comté, Beaufort, Gruyere or Emmental.

Four new ready-to-eat Cheese Fondues arrived on the market in 2013. All amazing, with either Louis d’Or, 14 Arpents or Victor et Berthold or the one from Charlevoix with both 1608 and Hercule in the box!
Alain Besré, Fromagerie Atwater and Aux Terroirs

One of my best bites was a fondue made from Victor et Berthold, a beautiful washed rind from Fromagerie Du Champ a la Meule in Québec. This cheese made one of the most delicious fondues of all time. It made me very happy.
—Wendy Furtenbacher, Blogger, CurdyGirl, Cheesemonger, Sobeys Queensway

 Outstanding cheese of 2013

Alfred Le Fermier (24 months), Fromagerie La Station de Compton
Alfred Le Fermier is a true, rustic, organic, raw cow’s milk farmstead cheese made in small batches, pressed and cooked, washed/turned by hand, as a way of life on the farm. It has a European style, but with local terroir, as a result of choosing closely the hay from their local Estrie region. Note heavy woodsy, herbal and mild floral aromas, with layers of milky, grassy and buttery complexity on the palette, more pronounced when aged for 24 months.
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company

Beau’s Abbey Style Cheese, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese
A delicious marriage of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese of Woodstock, Ontario, with Beau’s All Natural Brewing of Vankleek Hill, Ontario. This sumptuous semi-soft cheese is washed with a seasonal beer from Beau’s. Beer and cheese together, pure bliss!
—Gurth Pretty, Senior Category Manager, Deli Cheese, Loblaw Companies

Brebichon, Les Fromages du Verger
I simply adore Brebichon, a farmstead sheep milk cheese that is oh so creamy, delicate and lucious. This apple juice washed cheese is an absolute must buy on every stop I make at Fromagerie Atwater in Montréal.
—Wendy Furtenbacher, Blogger, CurdyGirl, Cheesemonger, Sobeys Queensway

Chemin Hatley, Fromagerie La Station de Compton
Made with organic raw milk from a closed herd of fourth-generation family-farmed cows, this cheese readily fulfills its potential. Supple and fragrant, with yeasty and savoury aromas, and a long layered finish.
—Julia Rogers, Cheese Educator, Cheese Culture

Crottin à ma Manière, Fromagerie L’Atelier
The goat’s milk cheese Crottin à ma Manière from Simon Hamel at Fromagerie l’Atelier in the Bois-Francs region of Québec surpasses famed Chavignol of France, is much cheaper and it’s federally licensed.
Alain Besré, Fromagerie Atwater and Aux Terroirs

Dragon’s Breath Blue, That Dutchman’s Cheese Farm
A rare find and 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix finalist, Dragon’s Breath Blue is a closely guarded family secret. Unique in shape and size, these small cylinders of blue cheese are aged only a few weeks then coated with wax for ripening another 2-6 months. The flavor and texture varies by season, more buttery/creamy in the summer months with higher fat content in the milk. Note sharp blue flavor, moist texture with fruity notes, and little blue veining depending on exposure to air. More than worth the shipping charges!
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company

Figaro from Glengarry Fine Cheese. Photo: Vanessa Simmons.

Figaro from Glengarry Fine Cheese. Photo: Vanessa Simmons.

Figaro, Glengarry Fine Cheese
I choose Figaro from Glengarry–not that I don’t love (and love the Global award!) for the Lankaaster Aged but I kind of forgot about the amazingly fresh and delicate qualities. And we found each other again this year–lucky for me.
Sue Riedl, Cheese Columnist, The Globe and Mail 

Fleur des Monts, La Moutonnière
Not as consistent as one might want, though still an ambitious and expressive farmstead cheese modeled loosely after Manchego, but more floral, bright and pungent.
—Julia Rogers, Cheese Educator, Cheese Culture 

Grizzly Gouda, Sylvan Star Cheese
I’ve served the Grizzly Gouda from Sylvan Star many times at events or at home this year and it is outstanding in its complexity, looooong finish and “ability to wow” factor.
Sue Riedl, Cheese Columnist, The Globe and Mail 

La Sauvagine Réserve, La Maison Alexis de Portneuf
Somehow the cheesemakers at Alexis de Portneuf improved their already mouth-watering, soft, mixed rind La Sauvagine cheese. What did they do? Add cream to it, making it a triple crème. Grab some of this cheese while you can. A limited amount of this OMG mouth experience was created.
—Gurth Pretty, Senior Category Manager, Deli Cheese, Loblaw Companies

Laliberté, Fromagerie du Presbytère,
I have to start with Laliberté from Fromagerie du Presbytere–the triple cream that I could not stop eating, and made from organic milk to boot.
Sue Riedl, Cheese Columnist, The Globe and Mail

Lankaaster Aged, Glengarry Fine Cheese
Supreme Global Champion at the 2013 Global Cheese Awards, this firm to hard cow’s milk cheeses comes shaped in a loaf or wheel, covered in a waxy rind, and is a Gouda-style after Dutch farmstead cheeses. It’s a rich, dense, chewy cheese with intense buttery, fruity, caramelized nutty flavors that linger forever.
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company

Le Vlimeux, Fromagerie Le Mouton Blanc
It’s not hard to see how this multiple Caseus award-winning cheese is smokin’ hot! Vlimeux is a firm, pressed, uncooked raw sheep’s milk cheese, with a hard, waxy, glossy, caramel-hued rind. Smoke, salt and nut permeate the interior overlaying the cheese’s natural sweet milky flavors in a perfect complement.
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company

Maple Cheddar, Black River Cheese
What could be more Canadian than Black River’s Maple Cheddar? This cheese provides a bite that is perfectly balanced between sweet and savoury, and just —Wendy Furtenbacher, Blogger, CurdyGirl, Cheesemonger, Sobeys Queensway

Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds
Okay, this is part of the cheese but my wife and I cannot resist adding small cubes of it into our soups, chili, tomato sauce and risotto. The dried rind softens in the broth, releasing its flavour and becomes chewable. We love it so much that we actually have to buy some from our local grocery store.
—Gurth Pretty, Senior Category Manager, Deli Cheese, Loblaw Companies

Pont Blanc, Fromagerie Au Grés Des Champs
Pont Blanc is a soft, lactic, surface ripened cow milk cheese. A rare find outside the farmstead retail store, the skin-like rind on this beauty reminds of intricate ivory lace, while the dense interior has the texture of a soft cream sandwich and moist piece of cheesecake. Note pronounced flavors and aromas of fresh sweet milk, and grass that linger and linger.
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company

Ricotta, Quality Cheese
The 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix Grand Champion, the humble Ricotta from Quality Cheese reigned supreme, winning against more than 225 of Canada’s best cheeses, a first ever for both an Ontario cheese and a fresh category cheese. Fresh, creamy, melt in your mouth Ricotta (which means re-cooked in Italian, as it’s made from the leftover whey after making other cheese). Very light, but rich, and very versatile as a simple cheese to eat with a variety of garnishes/condiments or used in cooking.
—Vanessa Simmons, Cheese Sommelier, Savvy Company 

Taleggio, Northern Italy
Taleggio (1996 Italian DOP) has and will always be in my Top 10. It’s a semi-soft, washed rind, smear-ripened Italian cheese that is named after Val Taleggio where it has been made since the 10th century. The cheese has a thin crust and a strong aroma, but its flavour is comparatively mild with an unusual fruity tang.
Alain Besré, Fromagerie Atwater and Aux Terroirs

Water Buffalo Mozzarella, Old West Ranch

James Meservy deserves a medal for perseverance! He has faced many challenges in the last two years in his attempt to bring high quality Old West Ranch Water Buffalo Mozzarella to the artisan Canadian cheese market. When it is in its finest form, it is dense and velvety without being the least bit rubbery and sweetly milky with a tangy underpinning that keeps us reaching for more.
—Janice Beaton, Owner, Janice Beaton Fine Cheese, FARM Restaurant

Only one imported cheese—Taleggio—made the 2013 most memorable list, but Julia Rogers offers this recommendation:

As far as international picks go, I’d suggest that any cheese lover make a pilgrimage to Neil’s Yard Dairy in London. The pleasures are too many to enumerate, but this is mecca, without a doubt. Here’s just one photo. And, yes, I tasted virtually everything in the shot.
—Julia Rogers, Cheese Educator, Cheese Culture

Neal's Yard Dairy: Mecca for cheese lovers. Photo: Julia Rogers.

Neal’s Yard Dairy: Mecca for cheese lovers. Photo: Julia Rogers.

See also:

A delish potato gratin made with five artisan cheeses

Five-cheese Potato Gratin: Scalloped potatoes never tasted so good.

Five-cheese Potato Gratin: Scalloped potatoes never tasted so good.

If you like cheese and if you like potatoes, this Five-Cheese Potato Gratin is the dish for you. This Christmas, we served it with roasted turkey at a Boxing Day family gathering and it was a hit.

Our gratin is based on a recipe developed by Kelly Jaggers who runs the mouth-watering blog Evil Shenanigans, subtitled “Sometimes it’s good to be bad.” Her’s is a four-cheese gratin. We go the extra step with five cheeses, four of them made by Canadian artisans.

Kelly Jagger's dish looks better than ours.

Kelly Jagger’s dish looks better than ours.

The main cheese is Pionnier, a wonderful collaboration by Marie-Chantal Houde of Fromagerie Nouvelle France and Jean Morin of Fromagerie du Presbytère, made in the Jura style with a blend of sheep’s milk and cow’s milk.

The supporting cast includes two cheddars, Avonlea Clothbound and Pine River Aged, and for creaminess, the delicious Laliberté, a triple-cream cheese made by Jean Morin.

The final touch, as the topping, is 30-month Parmigiano-Reggiano, imported simply because no one in Canada comes close to matching the Italian classic.

Bon appétit!

Our cheese plate overfloweth

After I wrote about the Twelve Cheeses of Christmas, it dawned on me we may never ever again be as cheese rich as we are right now at our house. In addition to the delightful dozen, here’s what’s resting at 4C and high humidity in our fridge:

Parmigiano-Reggiano Vacche Rosse

People who know their cheese often say Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse is the best Parmigiano-Reggiano there is.

Is this the red cow that makes the milk that makes the best Parmigiano-Reggiano?

Parmigiano-Reggiano from Red Cows, in English translation, is made from the exceptionally rich and creamy milk of the original milk source for Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Pezzata Rossa, a breed almost extinct by the by the late 1980s, writes Stephanie Zonis in The Nibble, an excellent online food magazine. Like the Jersey cow, its milk has a higher butterfat content and more milk proteins, but it isn’t a high-yielding cow. After the Second World War, as the old artisan ways began to succumb to efficiency, it was replaced by the higher-yielding Friesian. The result: a less-rich Parmigiano. The other result: The breed began to die out, since only a few committed farmers would keep less profitable herds. Over the last 25 years, some herds have been reestablished, thanks in part to the Slow Food Movement, and are now being used to produce small quantities of this high-end Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The combination of higher butterfat and more proteins allows for the production of a cheese that is better suited for a longer period of aging, producing a 30-month-old cheese instead of the 24-month aging period of most other Parmigianos. The extra aging yields a cheese that is uniquely nutty, fruity and grassy, with a flavor that is richer than most Parmigianos. The texture is more creamy, even though the cheese is aged for a much longer time (The rule of thumb is, the longer the cheese is aged, the drier the paste). This is a special-occasion cheese: Serve it as the cheese course, in chunks, drizzled with 25-year-old (or older) balsamic vinegar, The Nibble writer recommends.

We haven’t taken our first nibble yet, as other cheeses needed to be eaten first, but I’ll provide tasting notes when we do.

Here’s what else awaits us:

Chevrai

This soft, unripened goat cheese from Woolwich Dairy in Orangeville was given to us for Christmas with a goat-cheese baker that we’re eager to try.

Wilton Cheddar

I picked up this five-year-old cheddar during a quick visit to the Wilton Cheese Factory north of Kingston.

Black River Cheddar

A six-year-old cheddar from Black River Cheese in Prince Edward County that we’re in no rush to open.

American Cheese

A colleague of mine who loves to grill with American Cheese brought us a sample from her last visit to the U.S.

1000 Islands River Rat Cheese Curds

Cheese curds make such nice snacks, and these from River Rat are not as salty as those from La Belle Province.

Grand Camembert L’Extra

Where we live out in the boonies, the nearest cheesemonger is 45 minutes away. When the urge for cheese strikes, sometimes I’ll cruise Loblaws or Metro. That’s how I must have ended up with this Agropur product. Obviously, the urge was not that great as the Camembert is still with us, two weeks beyond its best-before date.

Rosenborg-Castello Traditional Blue Cheese

We always have some around for use in salads as it has bite and isn’t expensive for everyday use.

Bonnie & Floyd

So, why are we not eating any sheep’s milk cheese and have inventoried only one goat cheese?

Quite frankly, after I spent a day at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in November, I brought home so much sheep and goat that by the holidays we had exceeded our quota. In other words, we over-ate.

But the best is still to come. As a bonus for learning to be a cheesemaker for the day, each participant in the program was allowed to pick a 2-kilogram wheel of any Fifth Town cheese to take home. As Bonnie & Floyd is a favorite of mine, my choice was easy. As a result, I’m doing my best, despite the cold in all storage spaces in our condo building, to age my wheel for a Valentine’s Day treat.

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.

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.