Welcome to the September Cheese Forecast! We’re excited to spotlight four Canadian cheeses that recently won ribbons at the 2017 American Cheese Society Conference, held this August in Denver, Colorado.
You’ll see that this month’s choices range from the familiar — like a cheddar you may already love — to smaller-batch gems. Also of note: how growing consumer interest in exploring new milk types is encouraging cheese makers to create more buffalo, sheep and goat products.
But first, let me explain why an American competition matters to Canadians (and our burgeoning cheese scene). The American Cheese Society (ACS) Awards, now in their 34th year, are considered the Academy Awards of cheese.
This year judges tasted 2024 cheeses in 123 categories. All the cheese is tasted blind, and points are divided between technical skill (ever unwrapped a cheese that smells of ammonia? It’s not uncommon, and would be considered a flaw) and aesthetic achievement (the sweet taste of creamy milk still lingering in a fresh mozzarella). If no cheese meets the minimum points to qualify as a category winner, that category is left without a champion.
This year, of the 281 producers who entered cheese, 17 were Canadian. And we picked up 22 awards from across Alberta, Ontario, PEI and Quebec.. Below, four of our favourite homegrown winners.
1.Balderson Heritage 5-Year Old Cheddar (Parmalat)
Award: 2nd place in mature cheddar, aged over 48 months (all milks)
Milk type: Pasteurized cow milk
Produced in: Lanark County, Ont.
Perfect for: Destined for the cheeseboard — but leftovers would make a luxurious grilled cheese
Balderson has long been one of my favourite cheddars. Their 2-year old white cheddar, with its creamy texture and gentle tang, is a staple in my fridge. (And I’m not alone — kids and adults both love it.)
The assumption that the older a cheese the better it tastes isn’t entirely accurate: if aged without skill you can lose the balance of flavours, develop bitter notes and end up with a dry, unpleasant texture (aging results in moisture loss). But the Heritage 5-year old cheddar successfully takes the youthful, sweet tangy flavours of a younger cheese and concentrates them to develop a more complex, sharp and intense wedge with a long and satisfying linger. It’ll be more crumbly than the younger cheddars and is perfect for sophisticated snacking — whether paired with a crisp fall apple or a full-bodied beer.
2. Fleur de Buffala, Albert’s Leap (Quality Cheese)
Award: 3rd place, soft-ripened cheese
Style: Soft, bloomy rind
Milk type: Pasteurized buffalo milk (available from cow’s milk as well)
Produced in: Vaughn, Ont.
Perfect for: Brunch on the weekend (or just a late breakfast for one) paired with fresh baguette
Seeing a growing appetite for buffalo milk products (mainly from customers with sensitivities to other animal milks) Quality Cheese started to innovate with creating their own line of buffalo milk cheeses.
Newest to the scene is Fleur de Buffala, a brie-style cheese created under the Albert’s Leap label (a brand that focuses on the soft cheese niche). Fleur has a clean and creamy flavours and a gentle aroma of hay and herbs. Albert Borgo, vice-president of Quality Cheese, says that with Fleur, you may not taste a big difference from cow’s milk — but the two milks do differ in composition.
Buffalo is a richer milk than cow, higher in both fat and protein content. If you’re a fan of fresh buffalo mozzarella you may have noticed that buffalo milk can be a little sweeter and mellower than cow’s milk, and also more buttery on the palate.
Being a very new cheese, Fleur de Buffala is available only in Quebec, but there’s a silver lining (aside from that weekend trip to Montreal you’re now planning) — Albert’s Leap also makes the same style cheese from cow’s milk, a wheel called Belle Marie. Belle Marie is a double cream cheese, widely available across the country and will keep you in very tasty (and indulgent) company until Fleur hits the mainstream.
3. Nosey Goat, Upper Canada Cheese
Award: First-place tie for washed rind cheese, aged over 60 days, goat milk
Style: Washed Rind, aged 6 months
Milk type: Pasteurized goat
Produced In: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Perfect for: Shaving onto your green salad; the company’s managing partner Vivian Szebeny like to serve it after dinner with dark chocolate
I clearly remember tasting Nosey Goat for the first time several years ago. It was so flavourful, and it hit my afternoon savoury craving on the spot. Since then, the team at Upper Canada Cheese has been working steadily to refine each batch by adjusting the recipe and the affinage (ageing) process. Their efforts paid off at the ASC competition where Nosey Goat not only tied for first in her category but achieved a perfect score.
Vivian Szebeny, managing partner at Upper Canada, says her team was thrilled with the result — made all the sweeter after struggling through significant challenges over the last few years with their milk supply. (The goat farmer Upper Canada relied on for their high-quality milk decided to sell elsewhere.) Moving from a single source supplier — a key to their quality — to working with pooled Ontario goat milk required recipe adjustment to suit the new milk composition and a shift in their philosophy about how they source their milk.
Nosey Goat is a washed-rind cheese with a firm interior and fresh, bright flavours — and while it maintains the characteristic goat tang, there’s none of the barnyard intensity that can be challenging for the more timid cheese lover.
Upper Canada, who began making cheese from Jersey cows (and still does), is keeping up the development of goat milk products because of the robust interest in goat milk as an alternative to cow. Firm goat cheeses are harder to find, many people are most familiar with a fresh chevre whose tangy, high acidity can swing people to the nay side. Nosey Goat is a great place to start to change your mind.
4. La Madelaine, Fromagerie Nouvelle France
Award: 1st place, soft ripened cheese, sheep’s milk
Style: Soft, bloomy rind
Milk type: Pasteurized sheep
Produced in: Eastern Townships, Que.
Perfect for: Serving after dinner with an off-dry white wine (or include with some apple slices in your bento box lunch)
Like Fleur de Buffalo, La Madelaine is also a bloomy rind cheese (the technical name for what is often referred to as a brie-style cheese), but this Quebec producer uses sheep’s milk as the key ingredient. Unlike goat’s milk, which stands out from cow’s milk cheese more clearly, sheep’s milk is a little more mysterious. It often creates a mellow cheese, but do not mistake the gentle flavour as being one-note. Sheep’s milk cheeses sneak up on you — they’re not aggressive, but consistently complex and buttery (possibly my favourite milk for cheese). In aged sheep cheese’s (Manchego, for example) you can often detect a note of lanolin (the natural oil found in sheep’s wool).
La Madelaine is a young cheese aged for only 4 weeks with delicate notes of dry hay and a silky, buttery finish. The cheese maker wanted to give this wheel a female name, and so La Madelaine is named after an ancestor that came to New France in 1634.
La Madelaine is available across Canada but you might have to check in with your local cheesemonger. And while you’re at it, ask for sister cheese, Zacharie Cloutier, a firm sheep’s milk cheese (which I try to get my hands on as often as possible).
TIPS FOR SERVING YOUR CHEESE
- To enjoy your cheese to the fullest take it out of the fridge 1 hour before serving.
- If you’re serving four cheeses together, use a different knife for each one so the flavours of, say, a bold blue, doesn’t affect the others.
- Never overthink cheese! Serve simply with baguette, seasonal fruit and a little side of honey. Add a green salad and you’ve got dinner.
*this post was updated 10/04/17 to update the ACS award results