Cheese, Beautiful Cheese
I never tasted cheddar cheese, that staple of Canadian households, until I was in my late teens. It was probably at my highschool friend Martha’s place, portal onto all things anglo. It seemed exotic, yet strangely plain.
I grew up on European cheeses. Cheeses selected solemnly by my father at the farmer’s market: Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Edam, Gouda, Gruyere. Huge, creamy or crumbly hunks of cheese, wrapped in brown paper, eaten without any embellishment, the minute we returned from our Saturday shopping.
Since then, I’ve ben on a lifelong quest for continued cheesey satisfaction. And it’s not just about the cheese. The fromagist/e must be a tiny bit of a pedagogue, willing to explain the particular characteristics of an obscure cheese I’ve never tried. At the very least, cheese tasting must be ungrudgingly allowed (with the taster having the discretion to never taste more than three or four). The cheeseman or woman must be willing to cut smaller, 100 gram pieces for a hungry girl who lives alone, and must be above that cheesey trick of cutting three times as much and saying, blithely, is that OK?
I was excited when a particular cheese shop . Le Fromagerie, opened up near my house on College Street West near Ossington, of all places. But my experience with this elegantly appointed shop (and, to be truthful, that of some of my neighbours) has at times been disappointing. We occasionally feel shamed, for arriving too early on a Saturday (even thought the doors are wide open, the hour coinciding with opening hours posted), for not knowing the provenance of the baguette, for forgetting the name of the cheese we desire. It’s no fun skulking home with $20 worth of cheese and egg on your face. Maybe we need to have thicker skins? After all, this shop has introduced me to Chevre Noir and Bleu d’Auvergne, and they carry great pastry and scrumptious green olives…but I wanted more
So i was more than excited, thrilled, actually, when I stumbled upon the modest booth of Monforte Dairy at the brand-new Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market. There were tiny plates of artisanal cheese laid out to taste. There were pre-packaged slices of cheese with the prices right on them. There was a calm, gracious woman (who, I later found out, is Ruth Klahsen, the owner of Monforte, herself a classically trained chef – now cheesemaker).
And there was the cheese.
I tasted the haloumi, first, a Middle Eastern cheese I’ve often noticed listed as a recipe ingredient but never knew how to obtain. I’d imaginedit to be a very plain cheese, but Klahsen’s version tastes lemony, somehow, as though one is tasting the very pasture the sheep graze on. All of her cheeses are made of sheep’s milk – local, Mennonite-produced sheep’s milk, to be exact (Klahsen is herself of Mennonite extraction).
I ended up buying two of her aged cheeses: Paradiso, a washed-rind Italian cheese with a creamy-yet-chalky texture and a sweet butter taste with a bit of a tang, and Placere, more of a French cheese, very much like chevre, coated with rosemary, savory, chili pepper and jumiper. These cheeses are extraordinary, stellar. Out of this world! I tasted them last night, alone, before going out. I wanted them to myself! They made me happy, in a fine, secretive, sensual way. (Tomorrow, I’ll generously share them, with The Guitar Player – but knowingly, smugly).
Monforte has its heart and its politics in the right place. Their mission includes fair trade with Mennonite farmers, slow food movement principles, and tithing. Ten percent of their profits go to Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontiers.
Run, don’t walk, to Monforte Dairy’s booth: at Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market (Tuesdays, 3-7pm), or St Lawrence Market (Alex Farm Produce, three Saturdays out of four), both in Toronto. Check their website for other outlets in Toronto or across Ontario. They are based in Stratford – who knows, maybe they welcome visitors…
Have you tried Monforte cheese? Do you have any cheesey stories of your own?
Oh, too many cheese stories to fit in here. When I was curating for a small community gallery in North Vancouver, one of my favourite things to do was do my rounds before an opening to do the grocery shopping. North Vancouver still has the feel of a small town, where the butcher knows your preferred cut, the florist still asks me if I am single and that I don’t need to wait for someone to buy me flowers. And there is Benny at the Cheese Shop. It is the most unassuming place (they always are) behind Capilano Mall, a simple wooden sign and big enough for two at the most three people to fit inside. There is no decoration, no fancy crackers or cute signs for the cheeses. Benny is from Denmark and very proud of it. He knows everything there is to know about cheese and he hates simple questions. It is very frightening at first when you go there, you feel like you have to brush up on your livarot knowledge. But once he warms up to you, there is no end in his cheese paradise. Give him the wine list, he’ll match it perfectly, give him the occasion, your mood, the setting- and he will give you the best cheese to go with it. I call him my cheese philosopher. I remember getting a certain unpasturised Camembert that was so potent, we had to leave the gallery doors open during the opening. Benny and I always tried to push the cheese envelope. I hardly ever go there, I don’t work at the gallery anymore, and I miss the unassuming interiour of his shop when I visit the fancy specialty chesse shops that are popping up here.
PS. I just have to fit this one too. My grandmother succefully was able to smuggle up Bulgarian unpasturaised goat feta over two borders last year. She played the “I don’t speak English, I am really old and I need my cheese” card. The border guards finally gave up and let her go.
I love this story. I love your pedagogical approach to cheese, and your ‘pushing of the cheese envelope’! Benny is indeed ahard cheese act to follow!
A friend emailed me about this.
Thank you so much. You made me cry.