Breakfast of Champions: a cheese tasting at TGCCF
On June 3, 2012, Mike and I headed out to beautiful Picton, Ontario for the second annual Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Although the festival was running all weekend, we knew that we would only be there for part of it and were therefore determined to pack as much cheese sampling, education and enjoyment into that half day as possible!
Our first stop of the day, before the gates were even opened to the public at the Artisan Cheese Fair, was the “Tutored Tasting” that we had purchased tickets for in advance. The first class of the day was aptly named, “Breakfast of Champions”. From TGCCF website:
An introduction to what arguably are the best cheeses made in Canada today—from cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk. Taste the three cheeses, meet the three makers, start the day on a high.
The cost for this seminar was $56.50 per adult, and it was hosted by Georgs Kolesnikovs, who is both the founding father and director of the festival as well as a passionate cheese enthusiast and prolific blogger at www.cheeselover.ca. The ticket price included a sample of each of the three featured cheeses and the opportunity to participate in a Q’n'A with a cheesemaker or representative from each featured fromagerie.
As this was the first cheese sampling seminar that we had ever attended, we didn’t know quite what to expect. More to the point, we’re willing to make the assumption that the majority of our readers have also not participated in this kind of event before, so without further ado, let me walk you through the class; what we learned, what we tasted, and our general musings.
After a brief introduction from the charming Georgs, it was time for us to meet our first taste-maker and try the cheese!
Cheese # 1: Zacharie Cloutier
The first young cheesemaker that we met was Marie-Chantal Houde of the Fromagerie Nouvelle France. According to Kolesnikovs, Houde is a “Rising star of Quebec cheese”.
When asked about how she first became interested in cheesemaking as a career, Houde became quite animated and described watching a children’s television show as a young girl, where there lead character participated in making Oka cheese with the Trappists. The seed was planted, and after that it was always her childhood dream to make and share delicious cheese. That dream came true in 2010 when she partnered with her brother to manage a sheep dairy, which provides the milk for the FNF cheeses, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
After a stint producing within the Fromagerie du Prebytere, Houde founded the FNF and reached her goal of creating her own big wheel sheep milk cheese using both a mesophyllic and thermophyllic process. In her words, that basically means it is “a half-cooked cheese”, which ages for a minimum of 6 months before going to market. Now then, is that enough for her to be considered a rising star? Well, she started producing in 2010, and her cheese Zacharie Cloutier, (named after an early ancestor from the 1600s who settled in “Nouvelle France”, aka Quebec), was winner of the incredibly prestigious Caseus d’Or in 2011. So….rising star seems rather appropriate, no?
As for the cheese, the scent was sweetly floral and grassy, with gentle aromas of roasted nuts and coffee. The texture of this Alpine-inspired cheese was semi-firm to firm and the crystallized sugars could be felt in the tooth. The flavor was likewise nutty and moderately salty and the color was a gorgeous, buttery pale gold.
Cheese # 2: Camelot
The second cheese was presented by Éric Léveillé, proxy to the head cheesemaker Lauren Petryna of Upper Canada Cheese, located in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. With a wry smile, Éric explained that in a small, independently run fromagerie, any unplanned interruptions (such as a staff member taking ill) can have significant repercussions, but with a shrug he gamely led us through the philosophy behind UCC.
This self starter was established 5 years ago with the goal of making premier cow’s milk cheeses with a single breed (Guernsey), and I first tried their cheese with the delightful squeaky chew of golden Guernsey Girl last year. Petryna, who previously worked at Monforte Dairy, was keening to bring the lovely, salty, thick crusted ewe and goat milk cheeses that she loved to UCC.
Camelot was the fromagerie’s first foray into goat, and was originally an individual 400g format which was difficult to price for sale. With the same great taste but larger size, the updated 2 kg wheel of this washed rind cheese is easier to cut and merchandise. After gaining attention with their infamous Niagara Gold, it was no surprise when UCC’s newest product went on to win as the Royal Winter Fair, Reserve Champion in 2011.
The texture of Camelot is soft and supple. This salty cheese is aged 2-3 months and the creamy white interior contrasts appealingly with the dark, golden washed rind. According to Léveillé, the cheese will get more complex over time. However, with a heady sweet and musky aroma, rich but soft and slightly sour flavor and salty front-taste on the tongue, we thought it was perfect as-is.
Cheese # 3: Comox Camembert
Finally, we met Doug Smith, one of the brothers three who run Natural Pastures Cheese on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Smith humbly explained how he and his brothers are third generation dairy farmers from Comox, BC, but rather than being bred for cheesemaking, they stumbled into the field by serendipity in 1999. They met a cheesemaker from South Africa who wanted to make cheese but had no milk; they had milk but wanted to diversify. The rest became delicious history after their first cheese was produced in 2001.
As with most start-ups, there were initial challenges with merchandising this small batch, artisan product. Their first customer was a tiny health food store in the nearby town of Courtenay, BC, but they didn’t really start to take off until word spread to the local air force base, when fine young men and women from Ontario and Quebec started flocking there in hopes of finding some fresh, squeaky cheese curds.
It turns out that the brothers were cheesemaking savants, and in 2002 the Dairy Farmers of Canada invited them to enter the cheese making Grand Prix….where 5 out of 6 cheeses became titled finalists, and the Comox Camembert became their first World Cheese Championship award winner! Natural Pastures no longer raises their own dairy cows, however with their local and ethically rendered dairy products, they continue to win awards.
The expertly cultivated rind on this Camembert is thin, velvety, smooth and a flawless snowy white. The gentle bloom has the typical but understated mushroom aroma, with an interior that is very lightly scented, delicate and fresh. The texture of the cheese is tender but has a fair bit of body for a Camembert, holding up well with consistency throughout. In terms of flavor, the cheese tastes overwhelmingly fresh and clean, lightly butter and fruity with a nutty undertone and a vague, understated saltiness. This is definitely a subtle but “crowd-pleasing” cheese, if there ever was one.
One thing that all of the speakers agreed upon was the difficulty that a small, artisan business had to overcome in order to bring their product to sale. Regardless of whether the business was a small artisan producer (such as FNF with 36,000 litres of milk consumed annually), medium (UCC with 250,000 litres) or “large”, comparatively (such as NP, which at 500,000 L/year is still comically dwarfed by any of the main commercial dairies), there was a common complaint about the often crippling listing fees that shut most small producers out of the marketplace, heartbreaking stories about issues with herd or staff, and marketing frustration with fixed prices. These producers believe that consumers are paying the price of unfair marketing, combined with cost controls as Europe offloads excess factory produced cheeses at low prices into the marketplace. In the words of Léveillé, “[You can buy] cheap crap from Denmark…or the stabilized hockey pucks that will never age”, but there is cost associated with small scale production, done with care and passion, through the fromageries that aim to get a superior product to the customer at the most consistent but fair price.
As Houde’s eyes flashed, she proclaimed, “This will be a big battle….and I WILL do something!” and, frankly, we believe her. But in the mean time, we hope that what she does is continue to hone her mouthwatering craft, and keep plugging her product in the market place and at events like the Cheese Festival.
Overall, the course was an enjoyable way to spend an hour; surrounded by fellow cheese-nerds and turophiles, rolling around award winning cheeses on our tongues and learning about the talented people who produce these treasures. The price was fairly steep for what we got out of the seminar, however I do believe in fair pay for fair effort, and I feel good about supporting these smaller, local cheese makers however possible. In fact, we can’t wait to see what next year’s line up has in store!