As you may have guessed, today we’ll be talking about Canadian cheese, but I must admit that my first trip to Paris deserves all the credit for helping me discover the simple pleasure of a fresh baguette and some really good fromage. I’ve been a life-long cheese fan, don’t get me wrong, but there was something really special about the experience of picking up a fresh baguette in the morning and letting the fate of lunch rely on our ability to seek out the remaining elements as we explored our new surroundings. A fromagerie was always a pleasant discovery, resulting in some of the best spontaneous picnics.
Back home, I always take advantage of a gathering to visit my local cheese shop or farmer’s market, stuff my face with cheese samples, and take a few favourites home to enjoy with a group of friends. There is no shortage of incredible cheeses from all over the world, but what many of us, Canadians, don’t realize is that there are also some really fantastic cheeses made right here, on our very own turf. Seeking out local artisanal makers opens up so many possibilities to discover unique cheese that just isn’t available anywhere else and is a great way to support small farmers and producers.
So…you’re having a party and you want your guests to mix and mingle around the table while nibbling on the best cheese they’ve ever had. Of course! A cheese board is a total crowd pleaser and one of my favourite things to serve. Today I’ll be sharing few tips on putting together an awesome cheese board along with 5 Canadian cheese picks to get you started.
Let’s go cheese shopping!
Start by considering different cheese characteristics and thinking about variety when it comes to the flavour profile and intensity, texture, age/aging method, and animal source. Your friends will want to try all the cheeses, so have at least a few really distinct ones, but don’t overwhelm your people with too many choices. About 3 – 5 cheeses is common, with maybe a couple more if you’re serving a really large crowd. I like to balance novelty with familiarity to please the adventurous connoisseurs, cautious cheese cube nibblers, and everyone in between. Choosing a theme can also be really fun and help you narrow down the options.
If you go to a specialized cheese shop or a local market, the fromager will usually be more than happy to let you sample any of the cheeses and help guide your selections based on your taste preferences. Not only is cheese sampling like the best…thing…ever… it’s also the best way to filter out any cheeses that aren’t that great or exciting. Be prepared with any questions and a list of specific cheeses, makers, or types that you’ve been curious about and take advantage of having a cheese expert educate and guide you through the selection process.
A few serving tips…
Should you pre-cut your cheese? Most will say no, as having the cheese cut up into cubes or slices leaves it more vulnerable to sweating or drying out. On the other hand, serving up big blocks of cheese can be a little intimidating if no one wants to make that first cut. I like to get the party started by cutting up a small amount of each cheese, while leaving out the cheese knives for people to dig in on their own.
Keep any blue or strong washed rind cheeses separate from the rest and make sure that they have a dedicated knife. Something extra “fragrant” like the famous Époisses de Bourgogne is really delicious, but can send your guests home early if served indoors. It’s totally a matter of preference, but me mindful of a cheese’s aromatic properties and the space that you’re serving it in.
One last thing…take the cheese out about an hour before you’re planning on serving it, but keep it wrapped until you’re ready. Cheese is best at room temperature but no one likes crusty edges.
Cheese pairings and friends
You can have so much fun pairing cheese with other foods (and drinks), but my preference is usually to keep it simple and focus on the cheese. That said, fresh bread and ripe seasonal fruit are way too good with cheese to pass up. Grapes, apples, pears, and fresh figs pair beautifully with many cheeses and are pretty safe bets if you’re not sure what to serve. Fruit preserves, dried fruit, and chutneys are also nice, especially if fresh fruit is limited. If you have a blue cheese, I highly recommend pairing it with honey. It’s a classic combination that can work magic even on the blue cheese skeptics. To give a little bit of textural variety, I like serving some crackers and sweet crunchy nuts. Today I made some maple pecans (recipe below) to go with our Canadian theme.
I won’t pretend to know anything about wine, but I do know that it’s great friends with cheese, as is beer and cider.
5 Canadian cheese picks
Here comes the fun part! I took a little field trip to a local cheese shop and picked out 5 Canadian cheeses to get you started. While I tried to focus on artisanal cheese, regional accessibility was a factor in my selections, so hopefully you’ll be able to find these across the country, should you decide to try them.
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar
Clothbound cheddar has recently become a bit of a trend here, but the method of aging the cheese in a cloth binding goes way way back. A cloth (vs. typically plastic) binding allows the cheese to breathe in the surrounding air as it ages, resulting in some really interesting and wonderful notes. The flavour is still relatively mild, but is a lot more earthy and complex than your typical aged cheddar.
Avonlea clothbound cheddar is made in Prince Edward Island from raw cow’s milk and is aged for at least 1 year. Raw milk? That’s right! Raw milk cheeses are not super common in Canada and there’s a lot of controversy surrounding unpasteurized milk, but cheese that’s been aged for at least 60 days is considered totally safe and can be legally sold in Canada.
Grey Owl (left)
The gorgeous contrast between the grey ashy rind and the crumbly white interior of the cheese makes Grey Owl the prettiest one on the board. This cheese is somewhat similar to a chèvre, but with a little more tang and funk (the good kind), especially around the rind. It’s made in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, from pasteurized goat’s milk cheese.
Tania Toscana (right)
Tania Toscana is a sweet and mild sheep’s milk cheese made by Mariposa Dairy in Lyndsey, Ontario. It is aged for 6 months, has a well-balanced flavour profile, and is sometimes compared to a mild Tuscan pecorino. This is a safe choice if you have cautious cheese eaters, yet it manages to be really satisfying with a rich and familiar flavour.
I couldn’t resist adding another cheese from Quebec, especially one that is made in a monastery! The Abbaye Saint-Benoît-du-Lac cheese factory is managed by a group of Monks who take great care in the production of a small selection of cheeses, including Bleu Ermite – a lovely semi-soft cow’s milk cheese on the milder side of the blue cheese intensity spectrum. This was the first cheese that the monks started producing, back in 1943, and it remains one their most popular cheeses. Despite being relatively mild, this is the most flavourful and intense cheese on our Canadian board and is delicious on a slice of fresh baguette, with a drizzle of honey.
White Juliette is a Camembert-style surface-ripened cheese with a bloomy rind and a super creamy interior. It’s made in British Columbia by Salt Spring Island Cheese from local pasteurized goat’s milk. Wait… what? A soft bloomy cheese made with goat’s milk? Yes, and it’s SO good! It was my favourite of the cheeses that I picked for this board, and was super satisfying with nothing more than a thin baguette slice. Make sure to let this cheese warm up to room temperature before serving and you’ll be treated to some seriously oozy goodness.
I promised you some maple pecans and I stand behind this recipe not only for your cheese board, but for all of your pecan snacking needs! These are SO easy to make and are, in my opinion, way better than any candied nuts that you can buy. I’ve been making them at home for many years.