Hootin’ and feastin’ with Monforte’s Ruth Klahsen

Two pigs and five lambs were only the beginning of the feast at Monforte's hootenanny.

Ruth Klahsen sure knows how to throw a party. This afternoon, more than 800 of her closest friends showed up—and hardly anyone knew it was Ruth’s 53rd birthday. The invitations had only said it was to be a hootenanny in the Stratford Festival Theatre Lobby.

And what a hoot it turned out to be!

Ruth hosted the party to thank the 858 contributors who have raised $385,000 toward the cost of a new plant for Monforte Dairy. Government funding, including a $190,000 grant just the other day from Ontario’s rural economic development program, will make up the rest of $880,000 budget that will see Monforte return to cheesemaking on May 17 in a spiffy new production facility in Stratford.

Ruth Klahsen shows a flock of her supporters the new production facility taking shape in Stratford. Cheesemaking restarts on May 17.

“But it isn’t government that we have to thank for all this,” Ruth told her supporters during a tour of the the plant this afternooon. “It is you, the people who support Monforte, who made all this possible. Without you, we wouldn’t have got a penny from anyone else.”

Cheddar hoops once used by now-closed Forfar Dairy will find new life at Monforte.

Certainly, the banks weren’t interested in getting involved. As a result, Monforte Dairy now only deals with Mennonite Savings and Credit Union, the only financial institution to show support when Monforte Renaissance 2010 was started.

The public money-raising was all done with a model called Community-Supported Agriculture. Essentially, supporters paid in advance for cheese they would receive over five years. Here is CSA explained by Ruth in a video.

The hootenanny turned out to be more of a feast than a folk-music party—which is a good thing . . . when you have some of the leading chefs in Ontario showing up to cook for your guests. Take two pigs and five lambs, organize the chefs into two teams, and the result is sure to be outstanding. Here’s the who’s who:

Team Lamb: Joshna Maharaj, Anthony Davis of The Roosevelt Room, John Lee of Chippy’s, Marc Breton of The Gladstone, Jason Inniss of Amuse Bouche, Johan Maes of Petite Dejeuner, and Scott Vivian of Wine Bar/Hank’s.

Team Pork: Daniel DeMatteis, Steffan Howard of Palais Royale, Tyler Cunningham of Mildred Temple, Mark Cutrara of Cowbell, Martha Wright of Frank@AGO, Olivia Bolano of All The Best Fine Foods, and Chris Sanderson of The Drake.

Ontario wines, local beer and apple cider complemented the fine fare the chefs produced.

On the drive home, more than one guest likely reflected on truths that had become apparent during the afternoon:

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

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

Talk about being open to the public! This video camera in the make room at Monforte broadcasts 24/7 on the Web. Go to <http://webcam.monfortedairy.com&gt;. The username is guest. No password required.

Ruth Klahsen leads a renaissance at Monforte

We interview Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.

The cheese is remarkable, the woman behind the cheese even more so.

First, the cheese. Toscano was the first cheese Ruth Klahsen made when she overcame considerable odds to open Monforte Dairy in Stratford, Ontario, six years ago.

Toscano is one of the oldest cheeses in recorded history, going back some 2,500 years in Italy. The full name is Pecorino Toscano, from “pecora,” Italian for sheep. At Monforte, Ruth uses pasteurized sheep’s milk from Mennonite farmers to make the pressed cheese that’s aged a minimum of six months.

The result is a rustic, earthy taste that lingers long after the swallow. You can taste the farm in the natural rind (which requires two brushings per week during the aging process). A lovely aroma announces it’s a sheep cheese even before you cut into Toscano.

No wonder it has become Monforte’s most successful cheese and a favourite of chefs for the way it grates nicely over pasta or rice. With a dab of fig jam, it works well on a cheese plate, too.

Now, the woman. Ruth Klahsen describes herself as “just an old broad who had a mid-life crisis.”

Prior to 2004, she was a chef in Stratford, at Rundles, Old Prune and the Stratford Festival’s Green Room. Her mid-life crisis was that more than anything, she wanted to make cheese. Thus, it came to pass that she mortgaged everything she owned to raise $250,000 to start a cheesemaking business with Sebastiano Monforte, an expert in the cheese arts. Unfortunately, just before the business was to open, Sebastiano quit. Then, $160,000 worth of cheese had to be discarded because of bacterial issues.

With only $2,000 left in the bank, Ruth soldiered on alone. She selected Toscano out of a book on cheese because she liked its appearance, figured out how to make it, and, well, the rest is history that four years later led Toronto Life magazine to declare that Monforte Dairy “makes the best cheeses in Ontario. Full stop.

Ruth proved to be as inventive in making cheese as she was accomplished but her greatest challenge lay ahead.

In 2008, her landlord raised the rent to a level that was simply uneconomical for an artisan cheesemaker. No matter where she turned, Ruth found dead-ends and eventually closed down operations.

Undaunted, she launched Monforte Renaissance 2010 to raise funds for a new dairy using an innovative model known as Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). In a CSA project, subscribers prepay for product, thus, providing financing.

Monforte has three subscription levels, $200, $500 and $1,000, whereby supporters will receive $250, $750 and $1,500 of Monforte cheese over five years.

Says Ruth on her website: “We think this is a revolutionary concept. Monforte Renaissance 2010 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to affect directly the politics of food in Ontario. By participating, you’re helping establish a business model that should spearhead meaningful growth in micro-production, making it a more viable way of life for farmers and shepherds while providing consumers with higher quality products. If we can make this work—and we’re confident we can—Renaissance 2010 might just open the door to a new day for farmers and consumers alike.”

Renaissance 2010 is indeed working. To date, 791 subscribers have purchased subscriptions totaling $357,500.

The target is $500,000 from 1,000 subscribers by April 25 when the Monforte Hootenanny for supporters takes place at the Stratford Festival Theatre Lobby.

Click here to sign up. We already have.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

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