As Quebecers went to the polls Monday night, their cheeses won a landslide 14 awards at the first Canadian Cheese Awards in Toronto.
Le Baluchon — from Fromagerie FX Pichet — won Cheese of the Year as well as Best Semi-Soft Cheese and Best Organic Cheese.
“It’s for Canada,” said a clearly delighted cheesemaker Marie-Claude Harvey while accepting a trophy, medal and $5,000 cheque towards marketing for the big prize. “I am really proud. Thank you.”
The new and independent competition drew 291 artisan cheeses from 76 cheesemakers from British Columbia to Newfoundland. It is Canada’s largest cheese contest and the first to celebrate our cow, goat, sheep and water buffalo cheeses.
Thirty-one awards were handed out during a bilingual ceremony at St. Lawrence Market North co-hosted by University of Guelph food laureate Anita Stewart and Savvy Co. cheese sommelier Vanessa Simmons.
Ontario cheesemakers scooped up seven awards, Alberta four, British Columbia three, Prince Edward Island two and Nova Scotia one.
Bella Casara Mascarpone, from Quality Cheese in Vaughan, was named Best Ontario Cheese and also won for Best Fresh Cheese and Best Cow’s Milk Cheese.
“It’s exciting — it’s a new item for us,” said Albert Borgo, director of sales and marketing. “We launched it last summer but it has evolved. I think we took a more natural approach, using fresh milk, fresh cream and fresh butter. We’re always trying to do things better.”
Mariposa Dairy from Lindsay won Best Goat’s Milk Cheese and Best Sheep’s Milk Cheese.
“People have gotten over the hump with goat’s milk cheeses,” said cheesemaker Pieter van Oudenaren. “But many people have not tasted sheep’s milk cheeses and don’t how to feel about it.”
His goat’s cheese is called Lenberg Farms Classic Reserve by Celebrity Lindsay Bandaged Cheddar. His sheep’s milk cheese is Lenberg Farms Reserve by Celebrity Tania Sheep Cheese.
“Pieter can you shorten the names a little bit for the next time?” someone from the audience of 280 shouted playfully.
The other two Ontario winners were Eweda Cru from Best Baa Dairy in Fergus for Best Firm Cheese, and Golden Blyth from Blyth Farm Cheese in Blyth for Best Gouda Cheese.
The awards were created and chaired by Georgs Kolesnikovs, founder/director of the Great Canadian Cheese Festival held every June in Picton.
“I don’t make cheese. I don’t retail it. I don’t distribute it,” said Kolesnikovs, a journalist who blogs at cheeselover.ca. “I just certainly eat a lot of it and I have a great passion for it.”
He wants to help people buy more Canadian cheese.
For these awards, he insisted on pure and natural cheeses, with no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, and no modified milk ingredients.
Ten experts did the blind tasting and judging at the University of Guelph, headed by food science professor and cheese technology expert Art Hill.
At Monday’s awards, the co-hosts had fun with the different pronunciations of Gouda (gow-da, goo-da, how-da), and the category called Best Firm Cheese With Holes (so named to avoid misusing Swiss or Swiss-style).
“Everybody has to taste their way to a better name for that category,” Simmons urged the crowd.
Loblaw Companies was the marquee sponsor for the awards and public tasting festival that followed.
“We believe in the Canadian cheese industry,” Gurth Pretty, senior category manager for deli cheese, told the cheesemakers. “Our goal is to offer our customers the best that you create. You make amazing cheese and should be proud of it.”
Select Loblaw stores will carry the grand champion cheese and select winners.
Smaller shops, like the awards’ official cheesemongers from St. Lawrence Market — Chris’ Cheesemongers, Olympic Cheese Mart and Scheffler’s Delicatessen & Cheese — will also carry as many winners and finalists as they can.
What cheese lovers don’t always realize is that cheese producers can’t sell outside of their province unless they have a federal licence.
“It’s frustrating when it’s easier to get cheese from Europe than it is from our other provinces,” said one of the award’s judges, Janice Beaton, owner of Janice Beaton Fine Cheese and FARM Restaurant in Calgary.
Beaton often has to explain this system to customers who’re miffed that she doesn’t have more Canadian cheeses.
“It’s something the federal government, provincial government and cheesemakers need to work on,” says Stewart. “It’s the next stage.”
After the awards were handed out during a private event, 400 cheese lovers came for a public tasting festival.
One of the biggest hits of the night, though, wasn’t a cheese at all — it was a sausage studded with cheese.
The jalapeno cheese curd smokies, made by Kingston-area’s Seed to Sausage, combined pork sausage, pickled jalapenos and fresh cheese curds from Empire Cheese.
“I think what makes it so good is that it’s that trashy cheese smokie,” said owner Mike McKenzie, who tweeted a photo of the quarter cup of fat they got after grilling 200 of the small-batch, handcrafted sausages.
“We try to make something delicious but remove some of that guilt, too.”
- Follow @thesaucylady on Twitter. Jennifer Bain's book, The Toronto Star Cookbook: More Than 150 Diverse & Delicious Recipes Celebrating Ontario, is sold at starstore.ca and in bookstores.