Coast to coast, Canada produces plenty of excellent cheeses, most of them in large, high-quality factories. But there are a growing number of small-scale cheese makers who are busy perfecting artisanal cheeses. These are handcrafted in small production facilities, sometimes from raw milk when appropriate, then aged carefully and sold at the height of their maturity.
Until recent years, many artisanal products were available only regionally, but with the quality and production rising, cheese lovers across the country are taking notice, thus increasing the demand. Quebec - where cheeses have been produced since the end of the 17th century - leads the way, but all the dairy regions are catching on. Our survey of some of Canada's fine cheese classics will, we hope, encourage you to mix and match with your old standbys and inspire you to grace your table with a great all-Canadian cheese plate.
A fine cheese plate offers a variety of types, and to help you put them together, we have divided the world of Canadian cheeses into five categories: soft, semisoft, firm and hard, blue, and goat and sheep cheeses. The first four categories include exclusively or predominantly cow's milk cheeses, while the fifth comprises all types of goat's and ewe's milk cheeses.
Soft cheeses are generally creamy, fairly fresh and aged no longer than a few months. Most have edible soft rinds, which often add a stronger dimension of flavour. Because of their runny texture, they require bread or crackers as a base.
• Canadian Brie: Produced in Central and Western Canada by large and small producers; velvety white rind with soft ivory interior; its mild creaminess makes it a crowd-pleaser.
• Canadian Camembert: Fairly mild but richly flavoured; similar to Brie but slightly stronger; a good example from a small producer is Comox Camembert (Natural Pastures Cheese, B.C.).
• Sir Laurier d'Arthabasca (Groupe Fromage Côté, Que.): Unctuous, with soft orange rind; strongly flavoured, with a distinctive bite.
• Métis (Fromages Chaput, Que.): Luscious, creamy, very runny and mild; mixed cow's and goat's milk cheese.
• Vacherin (Fromages Chaput, Que.): The Canadian version of a famous French—Swiss Alpine cheese wrapped in strips of spruce; almost liquid beneath the washed rind.
Cheeses in this category have softer rinds, with generally smooth and fairly soft — but not runny — interiors. Serve in one large piece, from which guests can cut morsels.
• Havarti: A Canadian favourite; mild and slightly nutty.
• Fontina: Mild, sweet and creamy.
• Oka (Agropur, Que.): The granddaddy of modern Quebec cheeses (more than 100 years old), this New World version of French Port du Salut is fruity, full flavoured and nutty; it is sold in Classique, Regular and Light versions.
• Le Migneron de Charlevoix (La Maison d'Affinage Maurice Dufour, Que.): The 2002 Grand Champion at the biennial Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, presented by the Dairy Farmers of Canada; a Canadian original; semifirm, with light orange washed rind; creamy, with rich, buttery taste; milder than Oka.
• Boerenkaas (Natural Pastures Cheese, B.C.): Dutch-type farmer's cheese with ripe dairy flavour; mellow yet distinctive, with a melting texture.
• São Miguel (Portuguese Cheese Company, Ont.): Mild, savoury Portuguese-style cheese with creamy texture.
• Farmhouse Raclette (Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, B.C.): The king of melting cheeses; strong flavoured and creamy.
• San Pareil (Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, B.C.): Very mild and pleasant, with smooth texture; Little Qualicum on Vancouver Island makes a similarly shaped Tiny Tomme with more developed flavour.
• Pied-de-Vent (Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent, Que.): Firm rind (optional to eat) and fairly solid interior with soft, milky, buttery full flavour; from Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
• Cru des Érables (Les Fromages de l'Érablière, Que.): Pungent and strong flavoured, with soft rind, creamy texture and slightly bitter edge.
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Firm and hard cheeses
Most cheeses from the British, Dutch and Swiss traditions from which many Canadian cheeses are derived are in this category. Firm and hard cheeses are aged for long periods to remove much of the moisture or are made from cooked and pressed curds. They can be sliced thinly, cut into cubes or broken up for serving.
• Cheddar: Medium is Canada's best-loved cheese, but for your plate, select a well-aged Cheddar from three to even nine years or a flavoured one, such as Aged Port Cheddar (Fromagerie Albert Perron, Que.), which has streaks of sweet and fragrant port.
• Gouda: Holland's famous cheese, reproduced in Canada by numerous Dutch settlers; traditionally sold in mild, medium, aged and extra-old, as well as flavoured, varieties; local producers include That Dutchman's Farm in Nova Scotia, Cheeselady's Gouda Cheese in Prince Edward Island, Thunder Oak Cheese Farm in Ontario, Sylvan Star Cheese and Eyot Creek Farm in Alberta, and Natural Pastures Cheese in B.C.
• Provolone: Distinctively shaped cheese strung and hung to age; mild when young, but when aged, it has a more pronounced flavour and dry texture; Provolone Sette Fette (National Cheese, Ont.) is an award-winning example.
• Swiss: Holey Canadian version of Swiss Emmenthal; usually sold very young and mild; with age, it develops nutty flavour with slight bite.
• Verdelait Cumin Seed (Natural Pastures Cheese, B.C.): Lemony Dutch-style cheese flecked with cumin seeds.
• Leoni-Grana (Alta.): Alberta's grainy, crumbly Italian-style grana-type cheese.
• Wabassi (La Fromagerie du Petit Train du Nord, Que.): Slightly sharp, with lingering milky flavour.
Cheeses in this group have been injected with or, more rarely, naturally affected by moulds, creating tasty blue striations.
• Borgonzola (Quality Cheese, Ont.): Mild and buttery; a soft blue cheese for blue-cheese debutants.
• Bleubry (Cayer-Saputo, Que.): Slightly salty, with a mild tang; more Brie than blue in flavour but firmer than Brie.
• Bleu Bénédictin (Abbaye St-BenoÃ®t-du-Lac, Que.): Winner of many awards; slightly crumbly with light rind; sweet and salty, with a lingering taste.
• Bleu Ermite: (Abbaye St-BenoÃ®t-du-Lac, Que.): From the same monastery as Bleu Bénédictin; a rindless blue cheese, with fairly sharp, mouth-filling flavour.
• Le Ciel de Charlevoix (La Maison d'Affinage Maurice Dufour, Que.): Beneath the fairly thick yet mildly flavoured rind is a semisoft, voluptuous, cream-colour interior with occasional blue veining; pleasant, creamy sour-milk flavour.
Goat and sheep cheeses
Goat's and ewe's milk are made into all types of cheeses: soft, semisoft, firm and hard, and blue. Goat's milk is used to produce many familiar cheeses originally made from cow's milk, such as Cheddar, Gouda, Brie and mozzarella. Look for them in supermarket coolers along with fresh goat cheese and feta. Goat and sheep cheeses are whiter than cow's milk cheese.
• Fresh Goat Cheese: Unaged and almost pure white, it ranges from very soft and spreadable to firmer, slightly drier versions; made in several provinces; in British Columbia, look for David Wood's Goat Cheese, beautifully packaged with edible flowers; for a flavoured cheese from the East, try Lands End Farm's (Nfld.) Garlic/Pepper Chevre Round.
• Canadian Feta: A brined goat's milk (sometimes cow's or mixed milk) cheese, feta originated in Greece. Salty, with bright sharpness and dry texture.
• Aged Goat Cheese: French-style goat cheese; often fashioned in a wide log and aged to give it a moist crust (sometimes rolled in vegetable ash) and shallow interior with a slightly chalky centre; has more complex flavour than fresh cheese; there are examples nationwide, several in Quebec.
• Crottin (Natricia Dairy, Alta.): A small, roughly shaped round with softly wrinkled ivory rind; slightly funky, smooth interior.
• St. Maure (Natricia Dairy, Alta.): Cylindrical, with or without vegetable-ash covering; mellow yet very developed taste with agreeable nuttiness and runny layer between very soft rind and drier centre.
• Pyramide (Fromages Chaput, Que.; Natricia Dairy, Alta.): Pyramid-shaped, with sweet, edible dry rind and fresh, slightly sharp goaty taste when young; ages to drier, full-flavoured complexity.
• Brie Caprine (Natricia Dairy, Alta.): Mild, semisoft Brie-like goat cheese; an introductory-level aged goat cheese.
• Mountain Meadow Brie (Mountain Meadow Sheep Dairy Products, B.C.): Mild, fairly soft ewe's milk Brie-type cheese; rich and satisfying.
• Gracilosa (Portuguese Cheese Company, Ont.): Firm and mild, with slightly sweet taste.
• La Monarque (Fromagerie la Petite Cornue, Que.): Firm sheep cheese with hard rind; mild yet rich, buttery flavour, with agreeable tartness.
The ideal cheese plate
Create a cheese tray for a cocktail party or casual get-together. Or at a sit-down dinner, present a cheese plate after the main course before dessert or as dessert with a glass of sweet wine. Follow these tips.
• Serve at least three kinds, chosen from different categories.
• Vary types and strengths, and contrast colours and textures; for instance, a soft blue cheese (such as Borgonzola), a firm and drier aged provolone, and a semisoft, full-flavoured Oka Classique. Or combine a crumbly five-year-old Cheddar with a creamy Bleubry and a plain or flavoured fresh goat cheese. You could add even more contrast with a semisoft mild Fontina or, if you have access to a specialty shop, Le Migneron de Charlevoix and an aged goat's milk Pyramide.
• Some cheese plates can offer groups of one or two kinds; for example, Canadian blues with rich and creamy Le Ciel de Charlevoix, the drier and stronger Bleu Ermite or Bleu Bénédictin, and one of the mild soft blues, such as Borgonzola or Bleubry (serve this by itself or with a contrasting offering of goat cheeses).
• Always serve cheese at room temperature. Be sure to take it out of the refrigerator at least one hour before serving.
• Hard cheeses can share a knife, or supply a cheese plane. Supply separate knives for each soft and semisoft cheese.
• For appetizer or after-dinner cheese plates of three to six selections, plan on one to 1? oz (30 to 50 g) of each type per person.
• For cheese plates served at the table, prepare individual plates for your guests.
Cheese plate complements
• Cheese and bread are, of course, a natural match, but the bread should not overpower the cheese. For most cheeses, choose a plain, crusty bread, such as baguette (French stick).
• Complement strong-flavoured blue cheeses with nut and fruit breads or whole-meal crackers.
• Rye bread pairs well with strong cheeses, such as very old Cheddar or raclette.
• Choose plain, white or whole-meal crackers, or simple flavoured ones, such as black-pepper or sesame crackers.
• Fresh fruit is always welcome to provide accents in taste and colour. Grapes go well with all cheeses, as do pears and apples an especially good partner with blue cheese. Try fresh figs, strawberries or melon or peach slices.
• Put out some dried fruit such as figs, apricots, muscat or lexia raisins, or dates as well as walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans (in the shell or shelled and unsalted).
• Chutneys and fruit preserves, especially plum and apricot, are good with sharp aged cheeses, hence the classic combination of chutney or fruit pickles with Cheddar in a ploughman's lunch.
Selecting and storing
• Look at the outside appearance of your cheese: it shouldn't be cracked, dry, bruised or misshapen. When buying precut cheese from a supermarket, shop where there's a high turnover. Look for best-before dates on prepackaged cheese.
• Seek out the best cheese shop and get to know the people behind the counter; let them acquaint themselves with your tastes so that they can make recommendations.
â€¢ At a specialty shop, you should be able to sample a cheese, unless it is sold whole.
â€¢ Specialty aged cheeses are best eaten shortly after purchase; because cheese needs air, if storage is necessary, wrap in paper or the original wrapping - not plastic wrap - or place in a sealed plastic bag with plenty of air in it.
â€¢ Remember that cheese, especially artisanal, is a living thing: too-cold temperatures will inhibit natural aging, thus allowing quicker deterioration. Factory-made cheese is less affected by cold temperatures.
When guests come over for drinks and appetizers, you needn't offer a great array of wines, but you should have a little variety. Offer a dry red and a dry white. Popular Canadian red varieties include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir; white varieties could be Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay or dry Riesling.
Plan on half a bottle per guest for a party that lasts up to two hours. It's also nice to offer an off-dry white, such as one of Canada's excellent off-dry Rieslings. Most of them have enough acidity to be palatable to dry-wine drinkers. Don't forget sparkling wine; it adds a nice festive touch to the occasion.
For a really special start, offer each guest a Kir Royale or Raspberry Kir:
â€¢ Kir Royale: Pour 1 oz (2 tbsp/25 mL) black currant wine (Cassis or CrÃ¨me de Cassis) into flute; top with sparkling wine.
â€¢ Raspberry Kir Royale: Pour 1 oz
(2 tbsp/25 mL) raspberry wine (framboise or CrÃ¨me de Framboise ) into flute; top with sparkling wine. Garnish with fresh or frozen raspberry.