Have you ever tasted cheese? I mean really tasted it. Rolled it around with your tongue and let it linger on the roof of your mouth? Cheese eating is a sensual and sensory pleasure according to cheese sommelier Vanessa Simmons. “You want the cheese to go right to the back of your mouth, popped up where the peanut butter used to get stuck when you were a kid, and swish it all the way around so you are absolutely coating your palate and getting all of your taste buds working,” she advises.
I met Simmons at a tutored tasting for Quebec cheeses at The Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton, Ontario, in June. The Festival, showcasing the best Canadian cheeses under one roof, attracted 4000 cheese lovers this year. Artisan cheeses from Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Alberta were all on offer. One-third of the producers were from Quebec, Canada’s leading cheese-making region. According to Simmons, Quebec cheese makers are well organized and funded, share knowledge, are well informed by international research and display superior craftsmanship.
Simmons is passionate about cheese and even has a cow named after her. She led a two-hour Quebec cheese tasting and advised on proper tasting technique. The cheeses on our plates ranged from light to robust. We were given three choices for pairing — Keint-He Winery’s 2010 Pinot Squared, Stanner Vineyards 2010 Lincoln Lakeshore Chardonnay or Beau’s Beaver River beer. “At the end of the tasting you should not just taste cheese on the back of your palate, otherwise your wine is not bold enough to stand up to that cheese. If all you taste is wine or beer, there’s not enough going on with that cheese — it’s not big enough,” she said.
Simmons encouraged us to get physical with our cheese, to rip each piece in two and examine the formation of the curds inside. We noted whether the cheese broke evenly or if there was a jagged edge. We considered whether the cheese was made from a mould or hand crafted with care. We examined the outside, inside, colour and texture and noticed if the cheeses were creamy, hard, glistening or runny.
Then we savoured the fabulous cheeses of popular producers such as Fromagerie Médard, Fromagerie du Presbytère, Fromagerie Nouvelle France and Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent.
fromagerie médard: saguenay–lac-saint-jean region
Normand Côté is the fifth generation owner of Domaine de la Rivière, a farm in Saint-Gédéon, Québec, two hours north of Montreal. The dairy, Fromagerie Médard, named after Médard Côté, the son of the original landowner, uses milk from the farm’s Brown Swiss cows. Fromagerie staff member Diane Paget explained that the taste of the cheese varies depending on what the cows ate: “Was it just pasture or was it augmented because of a sparse year?”
On hand at the Festival were two Fromagerie Médard cheeses. The first one, Belle-Mère, an orange-brown washed rind semi-firm cheese was made from pasteurized milk and aged for three months. Washed rind cheeses are bathed in liquid, usually salted water, wine, brandy, local spirits, or herbs making them susceptible to bacteria that break down the curd from the outside, resulting in a more pungent flavour. The Belle-Mère with big buttery notes and aromas of lilac and lavender won a 2012 Selection Caseus award in the semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese category. Also made with pasteurized cow’s milk, 14 arpents, aged 30 days, was creamy and full of flavour, with the slight taste of hazelnut.
fromagerie du presbytère: centre-du-québec region
The Morin family has operated the Louis d’Or farm in Warwick, Quebec for four generations. In 1980, the farm went organic. Holstein and Jersey cows chow down on dry hay, clover, timothy grass, bluegrass and other organic grains and are not injected with antibiotics or hormones. “This dairy really pushes the envelope with raw cheese and more layers of complexity. They are more true to traditional cheese making,” says Simmons. A renovated church rectory built in 1936 houses the dairy. Friday nights are a celebration of cheese and community. Visitors converge on the rectory lawn with bottles of wine and beer to enjoy fresh cheese, music and bread.
Fromagerie du Presbytère took three awards at the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, Best Blue and Best Organic for Bleu d’Élizabeth and Best Swiss-type Cheese for Louis d’Or, aged for 18 months. I sampled four Fromagerie du Presbytère cheeses. The Brie Paysan, a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese had a bloomy rind and soft paste that melted in my mouth. Bloomy rind cheeses are covered with Penicillium candidum forming a white casing causing the cheese to ripen from the outside and become soft and runny on the inside. The vegetal, grassy and fungal notes offered an amazing expression of terroir.
Laliberté is a triple cream cheese, made with whole organic milk and aged for 45 days. The bloomy rind surrounds a soft paste with mushroom flavour and a creamy mouthfeel. Louis D’Or, made from raw organic cow’s milk is crafted in 40-kilogram wheels and develops complex flavours after nine months of ripening. This washed rind, firm pressed, cooked paste cheese has nutty and fruity aromas. Bleu d’Élizabeth is a semi-soft fruit-flavoured cheese made from non-pasteurized milk, displaying blue and greenish veins resulting from the presence of Penicillium roqueforti.
fromagerie nouvelle france: eastern townships
A young brother and sister team, Marie-Chantal and Jean-Paul Houde, started a sheep farm and a cheese-making operation, the Fromagerie Nouvelle France in 2010. Jean-Paul tends to a herd of over 200 East Friesian sheep on the 250-acre farm in the village of Racine. Marie-Chantal makes cheese.
Fromagerie Nouvelle France’s signature cheese, Zacharie Cloutier, is a raw sheep’s milk cheese, named for an ancestor who came to Canada from France in 1634. This ancestor is also said to be a distant relative of Céline Dion. In its first appearance at the 2011 Selection Caseus awards, Zacherie Cloutier won gold for the best cheese in Quebec in all categories. This orange washed rind, firm pressed cheese, aged for six months, exudes aromas of butter and caramel.
Le Pionnier, a cheese-making partnership between Fromagerie Presbytère and Fromagerie Nouvelle France is a 40-kilogram wheel made of raw sheep’s and cow’s milk coming from the cheese maker’s herds. The cheese is a “great marriage of cow’s milk cheese according to Morin’s tradition, and sheep’s milk cheese, according to Houde’s tradition,” offers Simmons. Le Pionnier is a firm cheese with a bit of washed rind, a dense cheese texture and some earthiness, and is very robust. Aged for 10 to 12 months, Le Pionnier displays complex aromas of butter, brown sugar and macadamia nuts with a delicate floral note. As Simmons says, “This cheese says ‘look at me’ and is very indicative of their personalities. They are very outspoken cheese makers.”
fromagerie du pied-de-vent: îles de la madeleine
In 1998, Jérémie Arseneau brought over a herd of Canadienne cows, a small black heritage breed, from Saint-Simon-de-Rimouski and l’île Verte to Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
He launched the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent and began cheese production on islands traditionally known for a strong fishing industry.
Pied-du-Vent is a whole milk, soft surface-ripened cheese with a bloomy natural rind and a dominant flavour of hazelnuts. Surface-ripened cheeses have mould on the rind, ripening the surface first and then the inside.
Tomme Des Desmoiselles is a raw milk thermalized cheese in a gouda-like style with a washed rind. The cheese is full and robust with a fruit aroma. You get a bit of salt in the cheese because the cows graze on hay and grasses around the edge of the island and right on the border of the St. Lawrence River. Two beautiful small hills on the Havre Aubert landscape inspired the fromagerie in the creation of this cheese.
To sample some stellar cheeses, take a tour on La Route des Fromages du Quebec linking producers across the province. Enjoy the ride through Quebec’s scenic countryside. Many barns are open, allowing direct access to goats, sheep, cows or calves. In Ontario, check out Oxford Country’s new cheese trail to see a life-sized statue of record-setting milk producer Springbank Snow Countess, or be a cheese maker for a day. Or head for the Taste Trail in Prince Edward County for a quick calcium fix. You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for fromage.