The warm and wonderful aroma of making cheese at home

Brown eggs give Jāņu siers a yellowish look. The cheese is eaten sliced, with butter, never on bread.

Brown eggs give Jāņu siers a yellowish look. The cheese is eaten sliced, with butter.

The sweet smell of dairy in the house that comes from making cheese at home is one of my favourite things at Christmas. Holding milk at 90 to 95C for 15 minutes so curd separates from whey is a sure way to create that warm and wonderful aroma.

Every December, the winter solstice finds me in the kitchen, happily making a midsummer cheese, a caraway-speckled pressed fresh cheese called Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language.

In Latvia, the cheese is a core ingredient in celebrations marking the summer solstice, a festival called Jāņi. I like the cheese too much to eat it only once a year, thus, the tradition of making it at midwinter and giving small wheels as gifts to family and friends at Christmas.

Here’s what I posted about the cheese on St. John’s Day a few years back:

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

Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language, is, literally, John’s cheese in English. When I want to sound fancy, I call it Midsummer’s Night.

In Latvia, for more than a thousand years, it has been made at the summer solstice to mark the midsummer festival of Jani. That festival was celebrated last night by Latvians all over the world on the eve of St. John’s Day. For many, it’s the most important holiday of the year.

In Latvia, farms are bedecked with garlands of oak and birch branches and meadow flowers. Nearly everyone leaves the city for the open air so that the shortest night of the year can be spent in the merry company of friends in the country. Bonfires are lit, special songs are sung, dancing is a universal element during the festival. The traditional caraway-seed cheese and lots of beer are on the menu.

Tradition has it that this is the one night of the year that you must never sleep. Girls pick meadow flowers to make wreaths for their hair, while men named Jānis get a bushy crown of oak leaves around their heads. (Jānis is the most popular male name in Latvia and comparable to John.) Eating, singing, drinking and dancing ensue the whole night long. Although the sun sets briefly, it doesn’t get dark in the higher latitude of Latvia and everyone must be awake to greet the rising sun in the morning. A naked romp into the nearest lake or river is a must for men—and the women who cheer them on. Young couples like to go into the forest and search for the legendary fern blossom. Or so they say. And when you greet the morning sun, you have to wash your face in the grass’s morning dew, which on Jāņi morning is said to have particularly beneficial properties.

Jāņu siers is always eaten with unsalted butter and never on bread. For the full effect, consume with Zelta, a Latvian lager available in Canada.

This midwinter, I went organic with all ingredients (full-strength milk, pressed cottage cheese, brown eggs and butter) except caraway seeds and salt sourced from Organic Meadows in Guelph, Ontario.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, was born in Latvia but has lived in Canada most of his life, in Ontario, Québec and the Northwest Territories.

Celebrating midsummer with Jāņu siers, a Latvian cheese

Jāņu siers is the traditional midsummer cheese enjoyed by Latvians the world over.

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

Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language, is, 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. That festival was celebrated last night by Latvians all over the world on the eve of St. John’s Day. For many, it’s the most important holiday of the year.

In Latvia, farms are bedecked with garlands of oak and birch branches and meadow flowers. Nearly everyone leaves the city for the open air so that the shortest night of the year can be spent in the merry company of friends in the country. Bonfires are lit, special songs are sung, dancing is a universal element during the festival. The traditional caraway-seed cheese and lots of beer are on the menu.

Tradition has it that this is the one night of the year that you must never sleep. Girls pick meadow flowers to make wreaths for their hair, while men named Jānis get a bushy crown of oak leaves around their heads. (Jānis is the most popular male name in Latvia and comparable to John.) Eating, singing, drinking and dancing ensue the whole night long. Although the sun sets briefly, it doesn’t get dark in the higher latitude of Latvia and everyone must be awake to greet the rising sun in the morning. A naked romp into the nearest lake or river is a must for men—and the women who cheer them on. Young couples like to go into the forest and search for the legendary fern blossom. Or so they say. And when you greet the morning sun, you have to wash your face in the grass’s morning dew, which on Jāņi morning is said to have particularly beneficial properties.

The reality for me this year was that I tried to make more Jāņu siers than before and used a large lobster pot to heat the milk to 90-95C rather than my usual heavy saucepan. Very hard to keep milk near the boiling point for 15 minutes in a thin pot, I discovered to my dismay, without scorching the milk. Thus, three small wheels I made won’t be shared with friends as behind the taste of cream and caraway there is a hint of burnt.

On the bright side, Jāņu siers is always eaten with butter (and never on bread), and I love butter almost as much as cheese. Lay on enough butter and the slight scorched taste dissipates. Consume with enough Zelta, a Latvian lager available in Canada, and the cheese tastes as good as it should.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, was born in Latvia but has lived in Canada most of his life.

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.