Finding Your Whey With Local Artisan Cheese
by Vanessa Simmons
Navigating the world of artisan cheese is something like dating. You never truly know what you’re getting into until you spend the time, experiment and
have several encounters, noticing the person’s character traits, appearance and mannerisms in a variety of situations. Only then do you discover the true personality of an individual or, in this case, a piece of cheese.
Here are 10 ways to really get to know your cheese better.
1. Spend time at your local farmers’ market. Chances are you’ll find a cheesemaker there. Visit often, ask a lot of questions and taste something new each time. Seek out jams, jellies, chutneys, honey, charcuterie, patés, artisan breads and crackers as well as ripe, in-season produce to complement your cheese. Inquire as to whether there might be a wheel especially aged or a new cheese in development to test. Experiment.
2. Visit a local cheesemaker at their production facility. Call first to introduce yourself and confirm availability. If it’s your lucky day, you’ll be able to actually see cheese being made and perhaps participate. One of my earliest and most memorable “WOW” cheese moments was scooping warm, fresh, soft, moist, silky cheese curds right out of the vat with my bare hands and slurping them up. Pure heaven. To this day, I remember the cheesemaking experience at Fifth Town Cheese in Prince Edward County that gave me a true appreciation for the work that goes into producing artisan cheese.
3. Try a variety of milk types and categories of cheese. Fresh cheeses taste most like the real flavour of cow, sheep, goat or even water buffalo milk. Cheeses that are aged longer are more complex with developed flavours that give it character. In Canada alone, there are over 2,000 types of cheeses ranging from fresh, soft and unripened, soft and ripened to semi-soft, firm, washed rind, cheddar, hard and blue cheeses. Be sure to nibble on them all—even the blues. If you don’t like the cheese’s appearance, close your eyes and taste.
4. Compare grocery store generic brand cheese with artisan cheese of the same type or category. Note the flavours, texture and characteristics of the store-bought brand or, more commonly, lack thereof. Read labels to confirm that the cheese is made with 100% natural Canadian milk and doesn’t contain modified milk ingredients.
5. Buy the same cheese from various sources. By trying a cheese from the local farmers’ market, a variety of different cheesemongers and also direct, you’ll get a sense of what is normal for that particular cheese. Not all cheeses are handled properly through the supply chain, and even cheese has a bad or off day every once in a while that will affect flavour, aroma, texture and appearance. My experience judging The Canadian Cheese Awards was a good example of this—some submissions weren’t truly at their best. Buying direct from the cheesemaker will give you a good benchmark to measure against over time.
6. Track your tastings and do some research. Keep a cheese journal. Note date purchased, date made/age (ask), where you bought it, price, amount and your thoughts. Record what you see, smell, feel and savour over time (size, colours, texture, distinguishing features, ripeness). List words you use as descriptors such as mushroomy, velvety, creamy, buttery, grassy, vegetal, barny, oozy, gritty, pasty, chalky, smooth, sweet and fruity.
Not sure how to describe it? Close your eyes and picture yourself in a farmer’s field with the sun shining and see what comes to mind. Check Web sites and reviews (but be cautious, much of what is published can be re-postings of the content of others). In some cases, reviewers are writing about cheeses and pairings they’ve never tasted themselves.
7. Pair with wine (don’t forget bubbly and rosé), local beer and even cider. Gather friends, fabulous fromage and your favourite local wine, craft beers and ciders. Conduct a tasting of the cheeses first, then mix and match with your bevvies and let the games begin! Note popular pairings and throw standard pairing rules out the window.
8. Sample the same cheese over time. Taste it at the beginning of summer, the middle and end of summer and over the winter months. Do you notice a difference in its flavour, the complexity or terroir (reflection of the milk by region)? Record your findings.
9. Hang out with cheesy people. If you’re really passionate about Canadian cheese get your curd-loving self to The Great Canadian Cheese Festival June 7 and 8 in Prince Edward County. Canada’s largest gathering of artisan cheese producers offers the best chance to do some serious experimentation with 4000+ cheesy friends. I’ll be there with the Savvy Company team. Track down Canadian Cheese Award winners. While in town, visit Black River Cheese, Ontario’s oldest dairy co-op. Sample their new-on-the-market honey- and wine-soaked cheddars and popular maple cheddar. Also make it a point to drop by Fifth Town Cheese, who are now under new management and warrant a stop for local products.
10. Taste, taste, taste! Of all ten tips, this is the most important in truly getting to know your artisan cheese. Pick a handful of your favourite cheeses and make it a priority to really be mindful and fully aware of your experience with that cheese over a period of one year, minimum.
How do you know when you’ve found “the one?” Keep trying until a cheese gives you an “O.M.G.” reaction where your eyes pop out of your head, your heart sings and you experience that oh-so-orgasmic feeling on your palate right down to the tips of your toes. Then repeat and share with friends.
At the end of all that hard work, you’ll have discovered the cheese love of your life and can continue your journey to explore new artisan cheeses.
Vanessa Simmons is the cheese sommelier at Savvy Company in Ottawa, spending countless hours with regional cheesemongers. Savvy specializes in “creative social experiences,” events where consumers can discover the world of wine, craft beer and artisan cheese with its wine and cheese sommeliers. Vanessa has her Cheese Education Guild (Level 2)and her Basic Cuisine Certificate from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute. She has worked as a chef and is a popular speaker at tasting seminars and events throughout Ontario. She’s been seen and heard on Rogers TV Daytime, CTV Morning Live, CBC Radio & Radio Canada and been a keynote presenter at The Great Canadian Cheese Festival year after year. It’s been noted by the Toronto Star that she is “openly fanatical about artisan cheese.” Follow Vanessa @savvyvanessa or read her popular “Curd On the Street” blog posts.