The Great Canadian Cheese Festival, 2012

There are few things in the world that we enjoy as much as a good festival. When that festival happens to include local beer, wine, preserves, and enough cheese to stroke-out you average Guernsey girl, well, all the better! Such was the enthusiasm that Mike and I brought to the second annual Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

For those of you poor folk who weren’t amongst the 3,800 or so that headed out to enjoy this year’s GCCF, it is held annually in scenic Picton, Ontario, an area well known for it’s pastoral charm, growing independent wine scene and exceptional culinary culture.  The festival focus is on Canadian cheese makers and dairies who use only pure Canadian milk (cow, goat, sheep and water buffalo) in their all natural cheeses.  The vendors span our beautiful country from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island, with a heavy turnout from our favorite Fromageries in Quebec, of course, and offered well over 125 different cheeses to sniff, sample, and shop. Other delicious options were also on tap from local breweries, wineries, and fine food purveyors.

For my very pregnant self, however, it was all about the cheese. You know, for “the calcium”.

We arrived at the Artisan Food Fair on the second day, which started out as a gloomy Sunday morning, but  but you wouldn’t have thought that considering the volume of foot traffic that was already swarming the grounds. A day that started out blustery and gray ended up evolving into a beautiful, sunny afternoon as people ambled amongst the outdoor tents, happily sampling the various wares and kibbutzing with the vendors.

Sunday was also “family day” at the festival, which explained the petting zoo (complete with newborn water buffalo!) and the proliferation of strollers and tiny bodies milling around. However, we have a sneaking feeling that the darling little knee-high “Cheese Heads” were a welcome staple to the volunteer community throughout the duration of the festival.

When faced with such an abundance of gastronomic delight, one hardly knows where to begin! Then again, as a good Southern Canadian girl, clearly my first stop had to be sampling and purchase of the obligatory bag of fresh cheese curds.  Folks, there is nothing in the world like the perfectly squeaky, rubbery chew of a salty, fresh-from-the-farm curd. Curds are not only utterly addictive as a protein rich snack, but they really do make the best possible road trip fodder.

The hardest part about wandering around at the Cheese Festival was trying not to buy everything. On every table. Twice. But really, who wouldn’t be crippled by indecision when faced with darling little decorative goat cheeses…..

….soaring towers of homemade dressings and preserves…..

…and posters of coquettish, cavorting sheep?

The price of admission ($40/adult) included 10 “tasting tickets”, a cooler bag for our (many) cheese purchases, souvenir stemmed sampling glass and access to all vendors/exhibitors/demonstrations. In terms of the tasting, some of the cheese makers and vendors had small, free samples to nibble on, while others offered one or more samples of varying sizes for a ticket or two. Some of my favorites were the cheese plates, where 1-2 tickets would get you a sampling of the fromagerie’s best with a couple of crackers to nibble on the side.

While I was busy grazing my way down a particularly delicious and tangy goat-heavy aisle, Mike was doing some sampling of his own with the local craft brewers and vintners.

It is worth noting that due to liquor laws in Ontario the festival was not allowed to sell any alcohol on site. However, sampling was more than encouraged, and most of the wineries/breweries were both local and hospitable enough to provide full directions, phone in orders and set merchandise aside for anyone who was interested in a pick-up on their way home from the event.

The key to preventing festival fatigue is to occasionally rest one’s legs, and what better way to do so than by taking in a Canadian cheese seminar? The seminars were on a “first come, first served” basis, and canny festival goers were sure to stake their claims to a good seat early.  We were having too much fun wandering on our own, however those that we spoke to who attended the seminars appeared to have heartily enjoyed both the learning and sampling experience!

I have an innate ability to consume alarmingly massive volumes of fermented dairy products, however not everyone can eat as much cheese as myself. The good news is that people who needed “real” food had a few options at the festival as well. Of course, there was nothing available that wouldn’t get a stamp of approval from the Dairy Farmer’s of Canada, which was a perfect compromise. The rapidly expanding local (to Picton) hot-dog purveyors, Buddha Dogs, were on site with a few cheesy specials….

…as were the popular Toronto based restaurant/retail outlet Cheese Werks, where the gourmet grilled cheeses were oozing in the most delightfully suggestive way possible.

After a quick break for lunch, it was back into the main building, the “Crystal Palace”, for more cheese sampling and shenanigans.

For an event of this size, there was very good organization and flow for guests. Very few areas became congested (and when they did, it was only momentary) which was a surprising relief for the main building.

The biggest draw of the Crystal Palace was about 1/4 of the space which was devoted to Plaisirs Gourmets, Quebec’s team of cheese devotees that partners with 15 of the province’s premier artisinal cheese makers. It was an excellent opportunity to meet the cheese makers in person, including the passionate and charmingly frank Marie-Chantal Houde from Fromagerie Nouvelle France. If you haven’t heard of Ms.Houde yet, you will know her soon; in the Fromagerie’s first year, their Zacharie Cloutier cheese had already won such prestigious accolades as the 2011 Golden Caseus (attention: anyone who is not a cheese nerd? That’s kind of a big deal. Act impressed).

Most of the Plaisirs Gourmets participants offered a sampling of all the cheese maker’s products on the table for a single measly ticket, so clearly we spent a lot of time in this section.

This is also where I met my new, favorite pretend-boyfriends (Mike doesn’t get jealous, guys. He knows that he can’t compete with exceptional cheeses), the cheese makers from Fromagerie du Presbytere.

If you like cheese, but you don’t really love cheese in a passionate “My life is nothing without rennet” kind of way, and you certainly don’t get what all my fussing is about, I invite you to sample the cheeses at FduP. I feel confident that as you roll around a silky mouthful of their soft Brie, tasting the native terroir and experiencing a complexity of flavor that you didn’t know could exist in such a mild mannered and crowd pleasing cheese, you will experience a rapid -and delightful – gastronomic paradigm shift. Moreover, when the cheese maker winks at you and playfully intones in a heavy French accent, “Eees good, no?” You will find yourself blushing and nodding your head emphatically whilst blubbering out that yes, their cheese is very, very good indeed.

The carnivores in the crowd were pleased to see ethical Seed to Sausage hocking their meats, and despite the popularity of their porky sausages, we couldn’t resist stealing off with some of their fennel scented dry cured sausage.

The GCCF was certainly not a disappointment, with so much to see, sample, and swill. We would highly recommend the festival to anyone who lives in South Eastern Ontario, or indeed anyone who feels like taking a road trip to one of Canada’s beautiful “hidden gem” communities.

And if you need any added incentive, remember: it’s all about the cheese.

If you missed this year’s festival, don’t despair. You can join us (and about 4,000 others) at next year’s event – June 7 to 9, 2013! I can tell you that those dates are already marked in our calendar, because when it comes to delicious cheeses, I leave nothing to chance.

Next up: we want to bring you along to the Tutored Tasting event we participated in, and share our thoughts on the 3 highlighted Canadian cheeses!

  • Jan

    When I last visited a friend in Toronto, a new cheese shop had opened in her neighbourhood. I ended up going there frequently enough over a span of 6 days that the (attractive AND knowledgeable, my favourite kind) cheesemongers were visibly upset when I mentioned I didn’t actually live in the city. All of which is to say that I am unspeakably jealous. Vancouver, where the heck is my cheese festival?

  • Kristen

    To me, this sounds like the great festival ever.  Too bad Phoenix is so darn far away from it.  

  • Jacquie

    Oh man, that sounds like the best festival ever. I am staring at my screen, drooling, and thinking about the paltry/expensive cheese selection in my town. As a fellow pregnant lady, I cannot stop eating cheese. It’s all I want.

    One of the stores in town has a $400 wheel of jarlsberg that I find myself wanting to justify. If I can’t eat an entire wheel of cheese when pregnant, when can I?