by Andy Shay
Traditions are rituals that we repeat over and over again – and that is what makes them feel good and comfortable. Years ago at my store, Shay Gourmet, I grew tired of offering the same prepared foods every holiday. Sure that my cutomers were tired of it too, I went to great lengths to create new dishes, twists on the holiday theme. But time and again customer choices told me in spades that they were looking for their favourite tried and true dishes.
Even so, every once in a while there is a groundswell of feeling that is so strong and sure that the rules of tradition are rewritten – this is that time in the word of cheese. As an American, I think that I can objectively say that Canadians are not always strong and sure about the things that they create and produce and often look to others for authority and assurance. But, I have noticed that that is changing in the world of food and particularly in cheese. A few weeks ago I attended the Ontario Culinary Tourism Summit and let me tell you, there are a lot of forward thinking and deservedly bullish and proud producers and development agencies in Ontario. And in Quebec, if you have traveled to almost any community you know that there is pride in local products.
The groundswell of products and pride from our farmers, and artisan producers is swelling to proportions that we cannot ignore. Six years ago there were almost no Quebec cheeses in Ontario, and artisan cheesemakers in Ontario were almost unheard of. Today there are hundreds of artisan cheeses available from our provinces and the cheesemakers skills are maturing with every passing year.
This December, a time of traditions, it is time for us all to create our own, new, self confident cheese traditions. The focus should be on our fabulous, home grown Canadian cheeses. I am not saying that we should boycott the tidal wave of British cheeses invading your nearest cheese shop and supermarket – many of them are wonderful. But today most of us are not from Britain and eating a cheese from that country does not remind us of loved ones in that land far away. We are a nation of transplants, lets eat from and celebrate this land where we live.
Anyway, I am creating a new tradition at the Shay house this year and this is what I am planning on serving.
New Tradition Shay Holiday Cheeseboard
Bloomy rind, cow – Comfort Cream has been production for four years now and has matured into a really lovely cheese. The milk comes from one of the only Guernsey cow herds in Canada and the incredibly rich, yellow and creamy milk is entirely evident in the cheese. The cheeses available at this time of year are produced from milk given while the cows were still pastured and is particularly yellow. Look for thick creaminess in flavour and texture as well as a few meaty notes.
Fresh , soft, goat – Salt Spring Island Truffle Chevre is a fresh chevre in one of those clear cups and is topped with mixture of truffle and other mushrooms. It is beautiful. The cheese is so white and is topped with the dark brown, almost black of the truffles. The incredible smoothness of this cheese is a perfect platform for the marriage of the two earthy flavours of goat and cheese. What a treat!
Washed rind, semi-soft, cow – Le Belle de Jersey is a brand new cheese, not in too many stores yet but it is a beauty from Quebec. Bergerie du Fjord is located near La Baie, Quebec. It is a sheep farm and it has been making sheep cheese since 2005. This year they started to use milk from a neighbouring herd of Jersey cows to create this cheese. It is and orange washed rind stinker about 5” in diameter and ¾” thick. At first it is creamy on the tongue and there is a bitter edge, however the flavour develops and blooms into a carmely, milky meatiness. Mmm. Serve with a country pate and cornichon.
Cheddar – Avonlea Clothbound vs Fifth Town Goat. I am still not sure how I am going to decide this one – can’t go wrong either way. Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar is Canada’s first clothbound cheddar in years and years. Most cheddar today is aged inside an airtight seal which keeps the cheese moist and hydrated over years of aging. The beauty of clothbound cheddar is that it is exposed to oxygen which dramatically changes the aging process. Clothbound cheddars are rarely older than 18 months old and yet they pack a wallop of flavour. They are dryer because they have lost some moisture and it gives the texture a terrific quality. They also tend to be muskier because they are covered in mould – often there can be a few veins of blue mould that run into the cheese – these are to be savoured. My most recent encounter with this cheese was in September on a sun-drenched, wind-whipped rock off Pointe au Baril. Let me tell you that this nutty firm and earthy piece of cheese did not last long after I pulled it out of my bag!
Fifth Town Goat Cheddar is a collaboration between Fifth Town Artisan cheese and the venerable Black River CO-OP. Those of you who have tried Chevre Noir know that goat and cheddar do belong together even though the idea may sound odd to purists. Really what you get here is all the tanginess and bite that you would expect from a traditional cheddar and you get a goat bonus of flavour, not “goaty” but an extra umph – a duality of flavour.
Blue, cow – Celtic Blue is new this year and comes from a dairy outside of Cornwall – Glengarry Fine Cheese. It is a very nice blue, not too strong, faintly sweet and mildly creamy. A nice way to round things up, serve with a stack of dates.
Look for these cheeses at your local specialty cheese monger, some supermarkets or online at www.aboutcheese.ca . If your cheesemonger does not carry them, make the groundswell bigger and ask for them!
Have a great holiday and be sure to let me know what cheese traditions you start this year.
Andy Shay is a director of the Ontario Cheese Society, teaches at George Brown College and develops special projects for Provincial Fine Foods including AboutCheese.ca.