EVERY GOOD CHEESE TELLS A STORY
A tasty afternoon on The Cheese Trail in Ontario’s Dairy Capital ‘If you don’t have the touch, you can’t make good cheese’
A tasty afternoon on The Cheese Trail in Ontario’s Dairy Capital
One Friday night last June, our downtown Guelph home was full of more than a dozen Grade 7s shooting Nerf guns and blaring tunes, chaos loud enough that the whole street must have overheard. “Mom! Neighbour’s here,” my son yelled into the kitchen where I was loading frozen pizza into the oven.
It was Jen Whyte from over the fence. I found her in the back porch with a glass of a dark liquid in one hand and a plate topped with a delicate mound of soft velvety heaven in the other. She said it was just the time-out I needed.
“Close your eyes, open your mouth,” Jen ordered. “Smell, savour.”
All it took was one dewy dollop of buttery, creamy cheesy bliss on the tongue for the Eminem thumping in the living room to silence; the waft of the 13 pairs of stinky running shoes in the porch to vapourize.
It’s clear this taste was nothing like the plasticky-goo on the pizzas warming in the oven.
My face melted. “Orgasmic,” I told Jen as I washed it down with the dark brown stout. Eating a piece of cheese with Jen is always like a seduction. “I’m in France, eating Brie on the Loire.” “No, you’re not,” said Jen, as she launched into the story behind the cheese that just slipped down my throat.
“In fact, you are in Ontario, in Oxford
County, eating cheesemaker Shep Ysselstein’s Brigid’s Brie from Gunn’s Hill.”
My neighbour is a cheese snob; there is no nicer way to say it. And her life mission is to make snobs of us all. Jen has booths at the Guelph Farmers’ Market year round and in Rockwood at the seasonal market, selling artisanal cheese – cheese produced in small batches by hand, using traditional craftsmanship. By night, Jen curates cheese, beer and chocolate tasting events with her company, Taste of Craft, run with local beer connoisseur, Karyn Boscariol.
Jen’s timing in the market couldn’t be more perfect: Canadians are craving local specialty cheeses over the giant producers of the manufactured processed brands. Don’t get me wrong: Kraft Dinner still reigns supreme with my kids. It is pretty well Canada’s national dish: James Lewis Kraft grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario.
Until about a decade ago — other than cheddar, which was once Canada’s second largest export — the great variety of artisan cheeses you found in the cheese shops were from Quebec or imported from Europe.
Today, there are 40-some artisanal producers throughout Ontario — the concentration sprouting up in Oxford County, about 30 kilometres southwest of Kitchener, where Bright Cheese still produces cheddar on the same land where their cows were milked 142 years ago. In 2015, four Oxford County artisanal cheesemakers were nominated for the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, and three came home with an award.
“It isn’t just the amazing quality and range of flavours in artisanal cheese that consumers are looking for, they want the stories behind the food: where it comes from, who makes it and how,” Jen says.
Hence, Oxford Tourism’s smart marketing move with The Cheese Trail in Ontario’s Dairy Capital – tourismoxford.ca/cheesetrail – launched in 2015.
The last famous marketing ploy for the dairy industry in the region was in 1883 when the local dairy farmers got together to produce a 7,300-pound wheel of cheese that toured to the New York World Fair and then to Great Britain.
In the 1800s, Oxford County was one of the most important centres in Canada with 98 cheese factories. On the tour today you can see a period replica cheese factory at the Ingersoll Cheese Museum.
Plans were laid that Friday night in my back porch for an escape to cheese heaven. I mapped out our route and Jen handpicked the cheesemakers while the ’tweens Nerf-gun demolished my living room and the pizza burned in the oven.
But I didn’t care. Soon I’d be devouring lots and lots of luscious cheese produced virtually just down the road.