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:

Discovering Quebec cheese one wedge at a time

Vanessa Simmons passes her enthusiasm for cheese on to students at a Savvy Company tutored tasting.

It is hard to imagine someone with a greater enthusiasm for cheese and its appreciation than Vanessa Simmons.  “I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like,” she insists, and I believe her. I met Vanessa on a Monday night in Ottawa as she led a cheese-tasting class presented by Savvy Company titled the Great Canadian Cheese Discovery. Held at Thyme and Again Food Shop, the class focused on Quebec artisan cheeses.

Vanessa is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, whose passion for cheese first developed when she made her own feta during a cooking class. She says she was amazed that it seemed to take just “magic, faith and some TLC” in order to produce a great-tasting cheese. She was hooked.

Vanessa is now working toward her Cheese Education Guild certificate with Canadian cheese maven and author Kathy Guidi. Once a week, Vanessa leaves work early and drives five hours from Ottawa down Highway 401 in order to attend the cheese appreciation course in Toronto.

“My brother jokes I either need a boyfriend or a dog, because I spend way too much time with cheese,” Vanessa says with a laugh.

But Vanessa’s great enthusiasm for cheese makes for a tasting course that is both educational and inspired. She led her 18 guests through a selection of seven Quebec cheeses, all of which paired with two Ontario wines: Cattail Creek Chardonnay Musque and Niagara Teaching College Winery Cabernet Sauvignon.

We began our sampling with Le Joupon Frivole from Fromagerie Les Folie Bergeres in St-Sixte, a soft, rich surfaced-ripened sheep’s milk cheese.  It was fresh tasting and had a thick texture, forming a paste that coated the mouth. The milk used for Le Jupon Frivole is thermalized, a process commonly used in Quebec. Unlike the high heat of pasteurization, thermalization uses lower heat over a longer period of time. It is therefore gentler on the milk, and helps maintain its original flavours.

Our second cheese of the evening was Foin D’Odeur, produced by La Moutonniere in Sainte-Helene-de-Chester. When it was presented to us, this ripe cheese was melting all over the plate.  Foin D’Odeur is a bloomy rind sheep’s milk cheese. It had grassy, natural flavours, while the rind tasted mushroomy.

Nearly every cheese we tasted that night was packaged in a beautiful, hand-designed label, as Vanessa pointed out to the group. The unique labelling reflects the grassroots nature of Quebec cheesemaking. The labels serve as an indication of where the cheeses comes from, and speak to the personal attention they receive from their makers.

Our next sample was a knockout little cheese, and one of my two favourites from the evening’s selection. Le Pizy from Fromagerie La Suisse Normandie in Saint-Roch-de-L’Achigan comes in a tiny wheel, but packs a rich, buttery taste with a bit of a tang. A winner at Quebec’s Selection Caseus awards this year, this cow’s milk cheese is a standout.

Sein d’Helene with cheesemaker Lucille Giroux.

We then moved to the most playful cheese of the evening, Sein d’Helene from La Moutonniere. Literally “Helen’s breast,” this cheese is sold in a cone-shaped package, both to reflect its cheeky name and the mountainous region from where it hails. The cheese mixes sheep and cow’s milk; it is a fresh, earthy tasting cheese with a bit of acidity.

Our next selection was a goat’s milk cheese from Fromagerie La Petite Heidi in Saint-Rose-du-Nord called Tomme Le Rosee de Saguenay. The cheese presented barn aromas and had a sweet, tangy taste. It is dry and crumbly in texture with a yellow-coloured rind.

Next up was the second of my two favourites from the evening: Hercule de Charlevoix from Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie-St-Paul. The cheese is named for a legendary local figure, Jean-Baptiste Grenon, dubbed “Hercules of the North”.  According to local lore, when Grenon was captured by the English in the 1700s and hung, he fought so hard and so long, the English were so impressed they released him from the gallows. The cheese certainly exhibits some of that same strength with its powerful flavours. A thermalized cow’s milk cheese, it tastes of earth and nuts, with a rind that tastes of chocolate.

Our final cheese of the evening was the only bleu on our plate: Bleu Moutonniere from La Moutonniere dairy.  Vanessa has nicknamed this blue-veined sheep’s milk cheese “the converter” for its ability to change the minds of staunch anti-bleu cheese tasters. My neighbour at the table was one of these self-professed bleu haters, so I eagerly awaited her reaction to this cheese.  Bleu Moutonniere was a big performer at this summer’s American Cheese Society awards, claiming first prize in the “blue-veined sheep’s milk with rind” category. The cheese is smooth and creamy, with bright coloured blue veins snaking throughout the wheel. It is salty and earthy, and quite inoffensive for a bleu cheese. Bleu Moutonniere managed to live up to its name at the table, as my neighbour declared “this is the only bleu cheese I’ve ever been able to stomach!”

As the evening wound down, I finished up my wine, and mingled a bit with the crowd of satisfied cheese students. Finally, I made my way over to bid goodnight to Vanessa. Like a true cheese enthusiast, she was standing by the cheese table, making sure none of the evening’s offerings went to waste.

—Phoebe Powell

Phoebe Powell, CheeseLover.ca’s roving reporter, is currently based in Ottawa. Her last post was about pairing artisan cheese with craft beer.

Tasting the best of Quebec cheese from Caseus 2010

Georgs Kolesnikovs and Kathy Guidi taste and talk cheese outside A Taste of Quebec in Toronto. Photo by Tetsuto Ozawa.

You can tell two people meeting for an informal cheese tasting are head-over-heels in love with cheese when they both show up with cheese board and cheese knives in hand.

Kathy Guidi and I had a chuckle about that when we met at A Taste of Quebec in Toronto’s Distillery District to sample the gold and silver medalists in Selection Caseus 2010, the chief cheese competition in Quebec. (We used her board as it was larger.)

Kathy, who has forgotten more about cheese than most of us will ever know, is the author of the newly published Canadian Cheese: A Pocket Guide and a long-time cheese educator and consultant to cheesemakers and cheesemongers.

The Caseus 2010 overall winners are:

The first two are generally available at A Taste of Quebec managed by Thomas Sokoloski and other cheese shops. The third I’ve had to order from Leslieville Cheese Market; more on Le Monnoir in a future post.

The dairy goodness of Louis d'Or tastes as good as it looks.

Louis d’Or is a relatively new firm cheese made by Jean Morin, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, at Fromagerie Presbytère housed in a former rectory across the street from the Morin organic dairy farm in tiny St. Elizabeth de Warwick, about two hours east of Montreal.

When I visited Fromagerie du Presbytère last summer, Jean Morin told me he was proudest of Louis d’Or of all the cheese he makes, and that includes Bleu d’Élizabeth, a favourite at CheeseLover.ca, which was the Caseus gold medalist in 2009.

“It’s a beautiful cheese,” Kathy said of Louis d’Or, nutty, with floral notes. Me, I love the milky richness of the cheese, a testament to the organic raw milk provided by the Morin family’s Holstein and Jersey cows. The Louis d’Or we had was maybe a tad dry as it didn’t quite have the knock-your-socks-off quality that I recall from last summer.

Flavourful Hercule de Charlevoix is one of the many outstanding Quebec cheeses.

There was no question our Hercule de Charlevoix was at the top of its game. Fruity, creamy, complex, with a delicious rind. One of the great cheeses of Quebec, no doubt about it. Another example of what a powerhouse of gastronomy the Charlevoix region of Quebec is—and how Jersey cows often lead to superb cheese.

“Don’t let the bold aromatics intimidate you from trying Hercule,” Kathy writes in her book. The flavour is actually quite refined.

Bleu de la Moutonnière is an amazing blue made by Lucille Giroux.

For our third cheese, Kathy recommended we try Bleu de la Moutonnière—and I am so glad she did!

If you believe a blue cheese must be soft, creamy and veined, you might be put off by the appearance of this Bleu. It looks more like a clothbound cheddar than a blue, although bursts of blue are clearly visible. But so much taste, so much flavour, and very blue indeed. Kudos to cheesemaker Lucille Giroux and her partner Alistair MacKenzie.

In her book, Kathy says, “This distinctive blue offers the epitome of zesty blue piquant and salt flavour balance while allowing other mores subtle, sweet, grassy cheese flavours to shine through.”

When I gave two budding caseophiles a taste of all three cheeses a few days later, they could not say which one was their favourite because all three seemed so outstanding to them, each in its own distinctive way.

That’s the sign of memorable cheese plate, isn’t it? All cheeses so tasty you cannot pick only one as a favourite.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Three months after his last visit to Quebec, Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, says he’s overdue for another trip to La Belle Province.

Good cheese hunting: Day 10, at the Canadian Grand Prix

Significant Other and I are so excited at the prospect of Formula 1 racing starting in 20 minutes that we wolf down most of our Hercule de Charlevoix before we think of taking a photo for the blog. Which explains the only image (above) we have of this wonderful Quebec cheese.

L’Hercule de Charlevoix was named after Jean-Baptiste Grenon from Baie-Saint-Paul whose physical strength was said to be phenomenal. Made prisoner by General Wolfe’s troops during the summer of 1759, Grenon was released by the English soldiers who were incapable of controlling the Charlevoix strongman. So the legend goes.

Steve Essiembre and Stéphanie Simard of Ferme Stessi with one of their 30 Jersey cows.

L’Hercule is a classic firm cheese made with raw milk from the 30 Jersey cows of the Ferme Stessi, a mere hundred yards from cheesemaker Laiterie Charlevoix, The curds are cooked, pressed and ripened, normally, for 6 to 18 months. Our Hercule had been aged a full 24 months and showed it in complexity.

The result is a cheese that is somewhat reminiscent of Swiss Gruyere but much more earthy, with a nice nutty finish. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Sue Riedl had this to say about Hercule:

The flavour and supple texture of the cheese gives a nod to such greats as French Comté and Swiss Gruyère. The younger cheese is mild with a fruity aroma and sweet flavour, followed by a tangy finish. By 18 months the aroma is creamier and more complex, and the sharper finish has mellowed to a full, nutty finale that is enhanced by the earthy, toasted flavour of the rind. These traits and its larger wheel size (12-14 kilograms) make L’Hercule de Charlevoix a unique style of cheese in Canada.

Laiterie Charlevoix also produces Le Fleurmier, Le Vieux Charlevoix, available in Ontario, as is L’Hercule, and Le Cheddar Charlevoix, sold only in Charlevoix. Our Hercule came from Fromagerie Atwater in Montreal. ($4.10/100g)

Our plan was to make the Hercule the only of cheese of this day, but after Lewis Hamilton, boyfriend of Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, won the Grand Prix we feel the urge to celebrate. Off to Montreal’s Latin Quarter we go where, at La Brioche Lyonnaise, Significant Other has a delightful vegetarian crepe—nicely layered with Emmentaler.

After a long day at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, she is famished and, again, we forget to take a photo.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs is Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca.