Issue 48, Number 4
Written By: Mary Luz Mejia
Canadian menus boasting European cheeses used to denote a worldly elegance. And, although there’s an enduring soft spot among diners for fine imports — from aged Spanish manchego to French brie de meaux — Canadian chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly serving small-batch, home-grown cheeses in keeping with increasingly local-leaning menus.
“[Consumers] are looking for something interesting. At one time, [they] wouldn’t touch cheese if it wasn’t orange or cheddar,” says Willem van den Hoek, owner of That Dutchman’s Farm in Upper Economy, N.S. “It’s the same story with bread, beer and wine. Now you get artisan-made products people want.” And, Canadian cheesemakers are appeasing a new consumer appetite by taking Old World traditions and marrying them with local ingredients such as herbs and wine.
Van den Hoek has been crafting farmstead-style Dutch cheeses for 40 years. He’s not worried about the competition from imported Dutch cheese. “There’s added value in buying directly from us, because people know us, support us and have a connection with us,” says the artisan. “Most of the imported stuff is generic.”
Although the broader Canadian cheese market is young, our producers are making an impact worldwide. In 2013, the Lancaster, Ont.-based Glengarry Fine Cheese’s caramel, buttery two-year-old gouda-style Lankaaster Aged Loaf was named Global Champion Cheese at the prestigious Global Cheese Awards in Somerset, England. And, last year, the inaugural Canadian Cheese Awards were launched as a biennial event.
Quick-service chains are even promoting Canadian cheese. Look no further than Burnaby, B.C.’s Fatburger Canada and Ricky’s All Day Grill as well as Vancouver-based Triple O’s, all of which highlight Canadian cheddar on their cheeseburgers.
According to Jill Failla, associate editor of Consumer Research at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc., items containing Canadian cheese descriptions have increased 4.2 per cent on leading chain menus since 2013. Recent favourites include the Canuck variations on smoked gouda, cheddar, cheese blends, goat’s cheese and feta. “Feta is now a top cheese choice for sandwiches, likely due to the proliferation of Greek cuisine; it’s also still a fastest-growing cheese among all entrées,” she adds.
So, although Canadian tastes have trended toward milder cheese, such as havarti and cheddar, consumers are also opening up to bolder, stronger flavours such as those found in blue cheeses and harder aged cheeses with more depth, says van den Hoek. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, gorgonzola, smoked gouda, brie, edam and havarti are the top five fastest-growing cheeses on leading entrée menus.
Overall, cheese ingredients have remained stable on leading menus during the past two years. “The most growth is in starter, side and dessert categories,” Failla says. “Cheese is a staple ingredient to numerous dishes across segments, meal parts and menu categories, and it has sustained its prevalence despite menus getting smaller.”
This is the case at Pangaea Restaurant in Toronto’s tony Yorkville neighbourhood where Martin Kouprie, chef and co-owner, makes his own. “Since we started offering our homemade cheese, we’ve seen an exponential interest in ordering it as a dessert option,” he says.
Kouprie’s cheeses are European in style, but they’re named after Toronto neighbourhoods. There’s the appenzeller-style cheese washed with wine and herbs dubbed Corktown; a “rich blue-blood cambazola” called Rosedale; and a Parmesan-style cheese named Palmerston. Using traditional farmhouse methods, Pangaea’s small-batch-made cheese comprises 16L of organic milk and other pure ingredients such as herbs and spices. “We serve a generous portion of cheese with a single tear of honey, stewed fruit, a fresh fruit — like a ripe fig — and sliced, house-made ficelle bread instead of crackers.” At every service, six of the roughly 11 varieties are on offer. (For $19, diners can choose three, or they can order all six for $36.) Kouprie also sources Parmesan from Italy or Stilton from England to keep up with demand, as he also uses cheese in dishes such as his pear and endive salad appetizer ($15).
At Vancouver’s eco-forward Forage Restaurant, Chris Whittaker, executive chef, sources cheese from British Columbia exclusively. Supporting local producers is a tenet of Forage’s operating philosophy, but that’s not the only reason he shops in his province’s backyard. “We have always found local artisanal cheeses get the most interest from customers. If someone hears we’re serving (Penticton’s) Poplar Grove Cheese or (Maple Ridge’s) Golden Ears Cheeseworks, for example, they may have a geographical or personal connection to it.” He adds: “People are increasingly aware of where their food comes from, or they want to know.”
Forage’s Golden Ears Cheeseworks Cheddar Pan Bread with spicy local honey ($8) is a favourite. Golden Ears’ Brie also takes a starring role in Whittaker’s stinging nettle risotto with short-grain rice, hazelnut praline and salt-cured duck yolk ($15). His artisanal cheese board dessert alternative is served with stewed fruits and local honey ($15). Gone are the days of “gooey, greasy, hot messes melted over something,” says Whittaker. “Cheese today is a key component to a dish’s flavour, texture and visual appeal.”
Like Whittaker, Renée Lavallée, chef/owner of The Canteen Sandwich Shop in Dartmouth, N.S., prefers to use her region’s artisanal cheeses as key flavour enhancers. Her menu features producers such as Holmestead Cheese from Nicholsville, N.S., Foxhill from Nova Scotia, Hug Your Nanny Goat Cheese from Weymouth, N.S., Cows Creamery from Charlottetown and That Dutchman’s Farm from Upper Economy, N.S.
The family friendly casual eatery showcases cheese in everything, from its bestselling man-sized Big Dad sandwich ($9.50) featuring Cows Applewood-smoked cheddar, Holmestead feta and Canadian burrata piled amidst layers of cold cuts and veg, to the Breakfast Pizza ($8), featuring Cows extra-old cheddar and That Dutchman’s Old Growler melted around bacon slivers and a sunny-side-up egg. “[Consumers] are more educated these days,” she says. “[They’re] taking an interest in good, Canadian cheese.”
Buying local also shelters restaurant operators from paying import quotas, tariffs and more. And, premium product, often sourced from local cheesemakers’ herds, raises a dish’s profile. “We pay a premium for the product, and that’s factored into the price of the dish,” Whittaker says.
This is good news, since fluctuating dairy prices are an ongoing issue. “Canada’s supply management system constrains the amount of imported dairy operators can purchase at an affordable price,” explains Failla. “Restaurants will likely increasingly call out Canadian-made cheeses on their menus to promote local sourcing and manage cheese costs.” It’s a win-win since consumers value locally produced ingredients and are willing to spend a little extra on cheese produced in Canada, she notes.
It’s important chefs keep up the momentum, supporting local producers. “Most of the local cheeses we have are young or quicker cheeses,” says Whittaker. “A movement to more long-term aging of cheeses is becoming apparent.”
But, Kouprie believes there’s room for new talent to revitalize the cheese industry the same way microbreweries did for beer. “I don’t believe the (Canadian) Dairy (Commission) would push back against innovation, development and the introduction of new varieties. In fact, they have systems in place to encourage new cheesemakers to enter the market by offering an experimental quota.”
Van den Hoek isn’t as optimistic. He finds new, mandatory regulations and expensive facility updates are barring a lot of young people from entry. “I’m sure big corporations will get into the business of making artisanal cheese as smaller companies get bought out and owned by the big guys. They’ll provide a facsimile of the real thing,” he says.
But consumers, counters Kouprie, are genuinely interested in discovering a new ingredient and the story behind it. If Canadian cheesemakers can make that story sing and get past the multiple hurdles facing them, there’s a fighting chance for more terroir-based, small-batch Canadian cheeses.