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.

Merry Christmas to cheese lovers everywhere!

px_cl_Xmas-12-PiedDeVent-cowsOur favourite Christmas greeting this year comes from Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent on Îles de la Madeleine via Plaisirs Gourmets.

As you can see, the image shows a herd of cows of the famed Canadienne heritage breed at pasture on the rolling hills of the Magdalen Islands—with the sun’s rays piercing through clouds. Those rays, in the local dialect, are called pied-de-vent.

 

Sun's rays piercing through clouds appear on packaging.

Sun’s rays piercing through clouds appear on packaging.

Click here to read more about Pied-de-Vent, the Canadienne breed and my pilgrimages to the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a piece I wrote last year for a special edition of Culture: the word on cheese.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief of CheeseLover, is founder of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

The joy of working over lunch—with Canadian cheese

Jamie Kennedy's take on poutine at Gilead Cafe.

Planning is well under way for the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival in 2011. That often means lunch meetings which, happily, means cheese on the table.

I had a chance to meet with Canadian cheese maven Kathy Guidi over lunch at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Cafe recently. What a treat it was to talk to Kathy—what with her decades of experience in Canadian cheese—and to enjoy one of Chef’s unique poutines: perfect frites with a healthy dollop of sauce bolognaise laced with Monforte Dairy’s Toscano cheese. I could have easily ordered a second serving but we had decided on a cheese plate for dessert, so I had to hold myself in check.

The cheese plate featured:

Le Rassembleu, an organic farmstead blue cheese from Fromagiers de la Table Ronde in the Laurentides region of Quebec. It has a lively creamy flavour, with the aroma of hay. The producers are fourth-generation cheesemakers.

Mouton Rouge, on the other hand, pleases the nose with a fresh and grassy aroma. A raw sheep-milk cheese created by Ewenity Dairy Co-operative in Southwestern Ontario, it has a lovely buttery taste that plays against the nutty reddish rind.

Grey Owl, a pasteurized goat-milk chèvre from Fromagerie la Detour in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec, near the New Brunswick border, looks and tastes outstanding, from its snowy white interior to riper regions to the black ash exterior.

Le Bleu d’Élizabeth, Pied-de-Vent and Louis d'Or at the home office.

A working lunch in the home office with festival co-ordinator Kip Jacques isn’t half bad either when the cheese plate features:

Pied-de-Vent, from the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is an an all-time favorite of mine. Smelly, creamy and tasty, Pied-de-Vent is my idea of a great cheese. Despite what some cheesemongers may tell you, it is available in Ontario.

Louis d’Or, a flavourful, complex Gruyere-like washed-rind cheese is made with the raw milk of the cheesemaker’s own Holstein and Jersey cows at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Central Quebec. Quite possibly, it’s Canada’s best “Swiss cheese.”

Le Bleu d’Élizabeth comes from the same Fromagerie du Presbytère and is an outstanding example of a Quebec blue. No, it’s defintely not named after Queen Elizabeth but rather Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick. The creamery occupies a former rectory in the village.

There is one other cheese plate in my notes from another working lunch but it was so disappointing that the proper thing to do would be to return to the name restaurant for another tasting before naming names.

One name I’d like to mention is Ezra’s Pound, a fair-trade coffee shop on Toronto’s Dupont Street. I’m so glad Andy Shay, a man of many talents when it comes to cheese, suggested we meet there as the croissants are to die for.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Have we mentioned that Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, loves his cheese?

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.