Erin Harris: Passion for cheese drives her career

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By ERIN HARRIS

Three years ago, I made a significant change in my 20-year career in the food and beverage industry. I was looking for a career in the area of greatest passion in my life: food. But I also wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and more fulfilling than I had been doing at the university where I had worked. Out of my passion for food and my desire for individuality and creativity came my own cheesemonger business: The Cheese Poet.

But let’s start at the beginning: I’ve always loved cheese. Cheese was always around, on the dinner table, in my sandwiches, in the cheese drawer. My Dad loves a really good nippy cheddar cheese, and also a nice stinky blue. My mom, she is equally a lover of cheddar, but also brie, especially when baked and served with something sweet. My sister loves a good goat cheese . . . fresh chevre, gouda, tomme.   And then there was me: I love them all. I always wanted to learn more, going to the local market to try something new each week. Cheese parties with my friends, cheeses abroad while traveling, cheeses every day, if I could!

My love of cheese really came alive the year that I took La Cucina Italiana: Italian Culinary Diploma at George Brown College in Toronto. While living in such a great metropolitan area I had a huge variety of food shops to choose from so, nearly every day I would walk the five blocks down to St. Lawrence Market and check out all three cheese shops. I would pick up little 2-ounce pieces of cheese that looked different and interesting to me, take them home, and savour them.   I spent most of my grocery money on cheese!

As part of the diploma, I was required to do a work term in Italy, home of the King of Cheeses! For six months I worked in Italy, and fell in love with a country that truly celebrates food—especially cheese (and wine, and pasta!). The first cheese that really made an impression on me was the Stracchino, a cheese that the lady of the house where I worked, would eat every day at the end of her meals with a piece of fruit. She would share her cheese with me in the early days, but then my own container started to show up on the table. “Get your own Stracchino!” was the clear message. And then there were all of the Pecorinos. Young, aged, rolled in herbs, soaked in wine, drenched in honey. I consumed more Pecorino than any other food in those six months.

Perhaps the birth of The Cheese Poet was inevitable. It has been operating for just over two years. Located in The Western Fair Farmers and Artisans Market in London, Ontario, The Cheese Poet is a one day per week (Saturday) business in which I sell predominantly local, all artisanal cheeses. I specialize in sheep milk cheeses, as we are fortunate to have some amazing local producers using good fresh local sheep milk. Many of my loyal customers who came to me with lactose intolerance issues, are now happily enjoying local sheep and goat milk cheeses in their regular diet. Working directly with my customers is truly the most enjoyable aspect of my job (next to always getting the first taste of a new wheel of cheese!). I have watched customers develop their own love of good cheese blossom. I have watched eyes light up and listened to excited voices as people experience the quality that Ontario cheesemakers are bringing to the table today. Without a doubt, the customers are the best part of my job. I am their Cheeselady!

In 2013, I attempted to expand The Cheese Poet to a six-day-per-week operation not once, but twice. The combination of high lease rates, and poor local economy, held me back from expanding my operation into a stand-alone shop.

Furthering my cheese industry awareness and education will allow me the confidence to move my business forward to its full potential. Attending the American Cheese Society (ACS) annual conference in Sacramento would afford me further insight into the cheese industry outside of Ontario. It will introduce me to the big world of cheese, and specifically, to all of the artisans in the USA who are producing award-winning cheeses that I read about but have not been able to experience for myself.

If I were given the opportunity to participate in the ACS conference in Sacramento—something that I cannot financially afford to do for myself at this time—I would expect to gain a level of awareness about the cheese industry in North America that would allow me to participate in and give back to this industry in a much larger way.

Not only am I passionate about the cheese industry, I am truly following my dream—something that John Crompton and I would have in common. I believe that Mr. Crompton would have appreciated my tenacity, and would have recognized the joy this industry brings me as something that it brought to his career as well. I have also not been able to afford the ACS individual membership, which I believe is an incredible resource for a small cheese business like mine. Additionally, I have applied for the 2014 Certified Professionals Exam. I will only be able to afford this invaluable certificate if I am awarded the 2014 John Crompton Memorial Scholarship. It would truly be an honour to be awarded this Scholarship, and I will do my best to honour his memory during my time at the ACS Conference in Sacramento, and with the energy and education that I take away from the experience.

Editor’s note:

Erin Harris is the second Canadian to be awarded the John Crompton Memorial Scholarship by American Cheese Society (ACS). The first was Nancy Peppler of Nancy’s Cheese in Toronto. The scholarship provides funding for travel and attendance at the annual ACS conference which this year was held in Sacramento, California, in August.

This essay—which earned the scholarship—was written prior to a new verse being added to Erin’s cheese poetry. She closed Cheese Poet in May 2014 to begin a new role as Cheese and Catering Manager for Sobey’s Urban Fresh, first to work in Toronto for the remainder of 2014, and then to help open the new Urban Fresh store in Ottawa, winter 2015.

Toronto’s Cheesewerks opens with free grilled-cheese

Opening-day freebie: Aged and smoked Balderson cheddars are grilled on cracked-peppercorn sourdough and served with roasted-garlic-red-pepper ketchup.

Toronto has more than one steak house, more than one seafood place. Next week, Toronto gets its first cheese house.

Cheesewerks, which bills itself as Canada’s first and only restaurant totally dedicated to placing artisan cheese at the centre of every plate, opens Friday, December 16, at 56 Bathurst Street, at the corner of Bathurst and Wellington.

Free grilled-cheese sandwiches will be served from 12 noon to 2 p.m. on opening day.

Cheesewerks is the brainchild of Kevin Durkee and Tom Douangmixay, partners in life and business.

Kevin and Tom are clearly foodies, with a love for honest, nostalgic comfort food, especially cheese, especially Canadian cheese. Cheesewerks will be a restaurant first but also a retail shop for cheese, charcuterie and other edibles. The restaurant will be licensed, serving Ontario craft beer and wine.

Partners Kevin Durkee (left) and Tom Douangmixay with daughter Taylor.

Here’s a brief Q & A with Kevin who has a background in marketing—which clearly shows in the eye-catching materials and hard-to-miss promotional campaign that have emerged in the run-up to the opening.

Q} What is your philosophy when it comes to food?

A} “Food is all about sharing. Getting someone to try something for the first time. Or reaching across the table to sneak something from a friends’ plate.  Food is what fundamentally connects us all.  The food at Cheesewerks is really about ‘comfort shared.’ Easy to understand, easy to enjoy and incredibility satisfying.”

Q} What role will Canadian cheese play in your operation?

A} “The biggest role. We support 100% Canadian cheese, using Canadian artisan products throughout our menu and retail offering. In fact, we are recognized and endorsed by the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Having the little blue cow as part of our credentials is amazing. The DFC designation is typically offered to producers and retail brands, to showcase their use of 100% Canadian Milk.  I’m not familiar of another “restaurant” that has been awarded this designation. We are very proud of this designation.”

Q} What is your background?

A} “I’m a natural-born foodie. My mother ran a bakery, then a Tea Room in eastern Ontario for over 25 years while I was growing up.  I was her ‘sous-chef’ helping out everywhere could.  It was my after school, summer and part-time job while I was at home.  Leaving for the big city, I entered into the marketing industry but quickly found myself marketing consumer packaged goods and lifestyle brands, many of them food brands.  Over the last few years, the restaurant foodie bug was back and I began to build the Cheesewerks brand.”

Editor’s note: There are two eateries with a cheese-focused mission in the West: The Grilled Cheese Bar located in Janice Beaton Fine Cheese in Calgary and especially outstanding Au Petit Chavignol in Vancouver. If you know of any others, let us know via the comments form below.

Cheese Boutique hosts Festival of Chefs

Henriot Champagne flows at Cheese Boutique during the launch party for this year's Festival of Chefs.

Chefs from Toronto’s leading restaurants will strut their stuff when the seventh annual Festival of Chefs unfolds at Cheese Boutique over the five weekends of May.

The concept is simple: Let the chefs create dishes with ingredients available at Cheese Boutique. Invite the public to interact with the chefs and—for a donation to Toronto Zoo’s conservation program—let them sample the cuisine paired with a glass of wine.

Here’s the schedule for the cooking demonstrations every Saturday and Sunday in May, from 12 noon to 4 p.m.:

May 1 – Anthony Walsh of Canoe
May 2 – Anne Yarymowich of Frank (AGO)
May 8 – Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier
May 9 – Alida Solomon of Tutti Matti
May 15 – Mike Steh of reds bistro
May 16 – Anthony Rose of Drake Hotel
May 22 – Chris McDonald of CAVA
May 23 – John Higgins of George Brown College
May 29 – Keith Froggett of Scaramouche
May 30 – Jonathan Gushue of Langdon Hall.

Of course, there was plenty of cheese to sample at the launch party.

Five wineries are participating:

  • Tawse Winery
  • 13th Street Winery
  • Cave Spring Cellars
  • Norman Hardie
  • Cattail Creek Estate Winery

Afrim Pristine, co-owner of Cheese Boutique, describes the annual promotion as “a celebration of culinary excellence, of passion, fine ingredients and sharing knowledge.”

Cheese Boutique is located at 45 Ripley Avenue in Toronto’s west end. The photos were taken at the festival launch party last week.

Charcuterie and other taste treats were sampled by guests at the festival launch party.

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.