Empire Cheese in strong showing at Royal Winter Fair

Cheesemaker Mark Erwin with two first-place cheddars. (Photo by Rebecca Crosgrey.

Cheesemaker Mark Erwin with two first-place cheddars. (Photo by Rebecca Crosgrey.

Even though it was up against Canadian cheese giant Agropur, Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op won two firsts, two seconds and two thirds in the cheddar competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair—the best showing by an artisan producer. In fact, Empire’s Mild Cheddar was named Reserve Grand Champion in the judging, runner-up to Agropur Grand Cheddar 2 Year.

The Campbellford, Ontario, cheese producer, where Mark Erwin is the cheesemaker, took the following honours:

  • Empire Mild Cheddar – Reserve Grand Champion
  • Empire Mild Cheddar – First in class, Mild Cheddar 2-4 months
  • Empire Extra Mature Cheddar – First in class, Extra Mature Cheddar
  • Empire Medium Cheddar – Second in class, Medium Cheddar 6-8 months
  • Empire Extra Mild Cheddar – Second in class, Extra Mild Cheddar 1-2 months
  • Empire Marble Cheddar – Third in class, Marble Cheddar any age
  • Empire Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Third in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar.

Maple Dale Cheese of Plainfield, Ontario, won the following:

  • Maple Dale Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Second in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar
  • Maple Dale 2 year – Third in class, Extra Mature Cheddar.

Ivanhoe Cheese of Madoc, Ontario, won second in the Extra Mature Cheddar class with Ivanhoe Classic Cheddar made May 15, 2011.

Four of the seven cheddar classes were won by Agropur, one of Canada’s biggest co-operatives owned by 3,400 dairy farmers. Among its 15 dairy divisions is Oka, Canada’s iconic cheese brand that dates back to 1893 when Trappists made it.

Pilgrimage to a Canadian cheese lover’s Mecca

Vanessa and I stopped shopping for cheese and charcuterie at Marché Jean-Talon when we were left with nothing but coins in our pockets. Photo by SO.

When they want to pay homage to fromage, cheese lovers in Europe make a pilgrimage to France. In the U.S., the destination is Vermont or California. In Canada, there is only one choice: Québec.

Despite much progress in Ontario and British Columbia in the last decade, Québec remains Canada’s leading artisan-cheese region. With about half of Canada’s 180 cheese producers based in Québec, its leading role isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

For Canadian cheese lovers, the easiest way to find Mecca in Québec is to visit Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal. Which is what Significant Other and I did with a great friend in cheese, Vanessa Simmons, cheese sommelier at Savvy Company in Ottawa. We have many friends who love cheese, many friends who love food, but only in Vanessa do SO and I find an appetite for food, drink and adventure to match ours.

We warmed up for Marché Jean-Talon by visiting Complexe Desjardins in downtown Montreal to say hello to cheesemakers taking part in the annual La Fête des fromages d’ici. It was good to see so many producers represented by Plaisirs Gourmets at the show. SO and I sampled our way around for several hours and then caught up with Vanessa to compare notes and purchases. No surprise that our wallets were $150 lighter and bags similarly heavier.

What makes Marché Jean-Talon such a perfect Mecca for cheese lovers is that here one finds:

and across the lane:

Short of spending weeks driving from cheesemaker to cheesemaker around Québec, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Two hours and more than $350 later, here’s what we had in our cooler bags:

OUR HAUL

IN VANESSA’S COOLER

CHARCUTERIE

Smoked meat at Schwartz's, fatty and fabulous.

Smoked meat at Schwartz’s, fatty and fabulous. Photo by VS.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Vanessa forced us to accompany her to Schwartz’s Montréal Hebrew Delicatessen for lunch of the most famous smoked meat in Canada. Oh, the agony!

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheesehead-in-cheef at CheeseLover.ca and director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival, lived in Montréal when Oka was still made Trappists at Oka. Way back then, his smoked-meat emporium of record was Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant founded in 1908 by Latvian immigrants Ben and Fanny Kravitz.

Looking forward to Bra, and a long ways back to Oka

On the eve of departure for Italy and Cheese 2011 at Bra—the most important cheese festival in Europe—I’m meditating on an extraordinary washed-rind cheese made by Trappist monks in Manitoba. As you can see, there’s only a small wedge left of the cheese made according to the recipe once used by Trappist at Oka Abbey to make Oka—quite possibly the most famous Canadian cheese of all.

Trappist cheese from Manitoba.

The cheese from Our Lady of the Prairies Abbey is saltier, earthier, with a depth of flavours not found in the Oka manufactured today by Agropur, the largest dairy co-operative in Canada, which acquired the name from the Trappist monks in 1996, 10 years before they sold the monastery.

But the Trappists never sold the actual recipe—or a notebook full of notes, observations and how-to instructions dating back to 1893, the year Oka was first made in the monastery on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montréal. That notebook now is in the possession of Brother Albéric, the 72-year-old monk who is the master cheesemaker at the monastery in Holland, Manitoba.

I remember full well my first taste of Oka at Oka almost 50 years ago. Somehow, I, a Lutheran, ended up in the guest house of the most Roman Catholic of monastic orders the week after dropping out of university. On my first morning at Oka, I found myself is a small dining room with a few other guests at a large table. In the center was what looked like a large platter of big chunks of pineapple.

Pineapple? It didn’t seem right to me, so, despite the rule of silence, I whispered to the man next to me, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” To which he replied in one hushed word: “Fromage.”

“Ah, cheese, I can go for that, ” I said to myself as I reached for a considerable chunk and popped it into my waiting mouth. Epiphany is the only way to describe what I tasted. In a word, it was divine.

And so it came to pass that my lifelong passion for artisan cheese was ignited . . . which has lead me to this evening, looking forward to Bra—and looking a long ways back to that morning in Oka.

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheese-head-in chief at CheeseLover.ca, serves of director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Of course, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in purgatory of getting Brother Albéric to the 2012 Festival, but hope and faith spring eternal.

Best cheeses of the “British Empire” in 2010

Lori Legacey, cheesemaker at Mariposa Dairy, has a sniff of a 19-kilo wheel of cheddar. The dairy's Lindsay Bandage Cheddar beat out 40 other goat-milk cheeses in the British Empire Cheese Competition. Photo by Lisa Gervais/The Lindsay Post.

Here are the results of the cheese competition at the 83rd annual British Empire Cheese Show organized by Central Ontario Cheesemakers Association:

The Alexis De Portneuf division of cheese giant Saputo was crowned Grand Champion.

Quebec cheesemaker Fromagerie La Vache à Maillotte was named Reserve Champion.

Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker  in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, was honoured with the Finica Food Specialties Award.

In the cheddar class, Parmalat Canada was recognized as Grand Champion. Reserve Champion honours went to Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues.

Glengarry Fine Cheese, after an excellent showing at Royal Winter Fair, picked up several more awards at British Empire, as reported in Eastern Ontario AgriNews.

Here are the top three in each class of the competition:

ARTISAN

Goat Milk Cheese

  1. Lindsay Bandage Cheddar, Mariposa Dairy (Finica Food Specialties)
  2. Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  3. Operetta, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Sheep Milk Cheese

  1. Bonnie and Floyd, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  2. Toscano, Monforte Dairy
  3. Wishing Tree, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

SPECIALTY CLASS

Hard Cheese Type

  1. Glengarry Fen, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Lankaaster Aged, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  3. Romano, St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Firm Cheese Type

  1. Lankaaster Medium, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Nouvelle France, Agropur
  3. Fondue Prestigio, Agropur

Swiss Cheese Type

  1. Artisan, Agropur
  2. Swiss, Fromagerie Lemaire
  3. Mont Gleason, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Semi-Firm Cheese Type

  1. Raclette du Village, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  2. Le Cabouron, Fromagerie Blackburn (Fromages CDA)
  3. Le Cendre, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Fresh Cheese Type

  1. Mascarpone, Arla Foods
  2. Ricotta, Quality Cheese
  3. Prestigio Ricotta, Agropur

Soft Rind Cheese Type

  1. St. Honoré, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  2. Triple Crème du Village, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  3. Cendre de Lune, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Smear Ripened Type

  1. Mamirolle, Fromagerie Eco Delices (Fromages CDA)
  2. Mont Jacob, Fromagerie Blackburn (Fromages CDA)
  3. Raclette, Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser (Fromages CDA)

Flavoured Soft Type

  1. Lady Laurier d’Arthabaska, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  2. Raclette Oka, Agropur
  3. Chevalier Tomato Basil, Agropur

Flavoured Firm Type

  1. Lankaaster Chive, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Smoked Cheddar, Parmalat Canada
  3. Lankaaster Cumin, Glengarry Fine Cheese

Blue Veined Cheese

  1. Celtic Blue, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. La Roche Noire, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  3. Bleubry, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf

American Style Type

  1. Brick, St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative
  2. Monterey Jack, Bothwell Cheese
  3. American Mozzarella, Parmalat Canada

Pasta Filata Type

  1. Bocconcini, International Cheese
  2. Burrata, Quality Cheese
  3. Fresh Mozzarella, Quality Cheese

Goat Milk Cheese

  1. Le Paillot de Chevre, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  2. Rondoux Chevre, Agropur
  3. Chevrita, Agropur

Sheep Milk Cheese

  1. Allegretto, Fromagerie La Vache a Maillotte
  2. Bedda Fedda, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  3. Blossom, Monforte Dairy

Process Cheese

  1. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada
  2. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada
  3. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada

CHEDDAR

Mild White or Coloured Cheddar – Less than 2 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Empire Cheese & Butter Coop
  3. Black River Cheese

Medium White Cheddar – 3 to 6 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues
  3. Amalgamated Dairies

Medium Coloured Cheddar – 3 to 6 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Bothwell Cheese
  3. Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op

Marbled Cheddar – any age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Bothwell Cheese
  2. Empire Cheese & Butter Co-Op
  3. St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Mature Cheddar – 12 to 15 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. St. Albert Cheese
  3. Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues

Extra Mature Cheddar – 24 to 36 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Maple Dale Cheese
  3. St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Lunch of champions for Festival worker bees

There was a planning session for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival scheduled over lunch for the week following the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. When the question came up, “What shall we eat?” the answer was a no-brainer: “Let’s sample the champions and winners in the Royal’s cheese competition.”

Thus, it came to pass that we had one champion and five winners spread out before us on Friday, as you can see in the photo. We would have liked more champions but only Oka L’Artisan was available at St. Lawrence Market.

You’ll note the lack of wine glasses. After all, it was a working lunch. Just cheese, with sides of charcuterie, walnuts, grapes, bread, and, in the front right, Bleu d’Auvergne from France for dessert.

Here’s how the three of us informally ranked the award-winning Canadian cheese we tasted:

Cheddar, 5 year, Fromagerie Perron, $2.39/100g

Outstanding! If this what a cheddar that wasn’t even entered tastes like, we cannot wait to get our hands on Perron’s Doyen, Grand Champion, and 120th Anniverdsary Reserve, Reserve Champion.

Fromagerie Perron definitely will be on our list of cheesemakers to visit when we next travel on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Fromagerie Perron is located on Lac Saint Jean in the Saguenay region.

Champfleury, Agropur, $4.00/100g

It didn’t take us long to consume the entire small wheel of Champfleury. We loved the fruity creaminess of this washed-rind soft cheese but were stunned afterward to read on the label that modified milk ingredients (MMI) are used in making the cheese.

Champfleury is marketed as an “authentic fine cheese” in the Agropur Signature collection. Hmmm . . .

Bonnie & Floyd, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, $7.69/100g

No MMIs come anywhere near this excellent cave-aged sheep cheese made in Prince Edward County by the greenest creamery in Canada.

Oka L’Artisan, Agropur, $3.58/100g

No longer made by Trappist monks but still one of Canada’s most recognizable and noteworthy cheeses. Agropur cheesemakers make the cheese in the former Cistercian abbey. Whether the recipe is the original is arguable.

Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, $6.99/100g

Goat’s milk does have it distinctive lemony tang but Fifth Town has earned many awards with this washed-rind cave-aged cheese that has broad appeal.

Chevrita, Agropur

Snow white and satin-like to the touch, Chevrita is pure goat cheese.

Oka and chicken thighs: a winning pair

Voila! A grilled-cheese sandwich made with Oka and dark chicken. And butter of course.

Significant Other knows I love Oka. She knows I love dark chicken. And she knows I’m crazy about well-buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches. Yes, you guessed it! She combined all three in a surprise lunch that was outstanding.

Although I’ve been in love with Oka for almost 50 years, I’ve never ever had it in a grilled sandwich. Now, it will be part of the reportoire. It melts so easily, turns so gooey, and tastes so wonderful.

The chunks of chicken thighs in the warm cheese reminded me of a fine chicken Parmigiano. The caraway seeds in the light rye were popping with flavour. Sliced cucumbers and grape tomatoes made the perfect side.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-head-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca, has never met a grilled-cheese sandwich he didn’t like.

Sweet goat-cheese mousse: What a concept!

Spectacular fireworks open Winterlude in Ottawa. Photo by Dennis Catangay.

Kicking back in Zoe’s Lounge at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa is a fine way to conclude a road trip that started 10 hours earlier. We have a window table under the atrium with a view of the stately National Arts Centre and Wellington Street where pedestrians in parkas and toques scurry back and forth.

As we had a productive meeting earlier in Picton to discuss the Ontario cheese trail concept, I’d like to end the day on a cheese high. I order a French onion soup, make a “Canadian cheese board” my main, and finish the meal with what turns out to be an exceptional apple cake.

The aroma from the duo of cheeses—Gruyere and Oka, both from Quebec—on the onion soup makes it soooooooo inviting. Significant Other makes a note to combine the two on a grilled cheese sandwich sometime. The soup itself is rich and hearty. (Why is that the closer one gets to the Quebec, the better the French onions soups taste?)

The Canadian cheese plate is fine in an ordinary sort of way: Oka is always nice, three-year Balderson Heritage Cheddar has bite, Ermite from Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac has blue tang and a linger of mushrooms, while the Chevalier Triple Cream Brie is suitably creamy. On the side there is a tasty mission-fig chutney and a perfect cluster of small grapes.

But the piece de resistance is the apple cake, more specifically, brown butter apple cake served with roasted walnut vanilla ice cream, marinated cranberries, drizzle of creme anglaise and caramel sauce, and—Wait for it!—a dollop of sweet goat-cheese mousse.

What an amazing flavour! The sweetened whipped cream is a perfect match for the goat cheese. A perfect end to the meal and a day on the road to visit Ottawa for Winterlude.