Grand Magazine - - FEATURE - mon­ Mon­forte on Welling­ton 80 Welling­ton St., Strat­ford

Our next visit is not to a farm or a cheese­pro­cess­ing plant, nor is it a stop even listed on the Cheese Trail. This is Ruth Klah­sen’s Mon­forte on Welling­ton eatery in neigh­bour­ing Perth County in down­town Strat­ford.

“She is known for do­ing things dif­fer­ently,” says Jen, “she is a force of na­ture. Any­how, her cheese can’t be missed.”

The prod­ucts from her dairy (a pro­cess­ing plant in town), the first op­er­at­ing ar­ti­sanal cheese com­pany to launch in On­tario, are wildly pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially in mar­kets and high-end bou­tiques – she has a Toronto out­post on a trendy strip in Lib­erty Vil­lage – and in 30-plus restau­rants, such as Toronto’s high-end Royal York and Cava.

“Peo­ple die when they can’t get the Mon­forte Toscano,” my neigh­bour says, re­fer­ring to a beloved in­tense, earthy sheep’s cheese.

The res­tau­rant, which bills it­self as an os­te­ria — a small, sim­ple eatery — is a per­fect show­case for Mon­forte prod­ucts, and for Klah­sen as an en­tre­pre­neur.

Where van Bergei­jks is ru­ral — his re­la­tion­ship with the land and an­i­mals paramount — Klah­sen is ur­ban. She grew up a city Men­non­ite in Lon­don, Ont., and her con­nec­tions with “the right peo­ple has made for the best in­gre­di­ents.”

Her life re­volves around food: she eats out al­most nightly and is in­ti­mate with all the food trends hav­ing worked long­time in the culi­nary in­dus­try, as a chef in Strat­ford and at its fes­ti­val, plus as an in­struc­tor at Strat­ford’s fa­mous chef school where she grad­u­ated in the in­au­gu­ral class in 1983.

Klah­sen does not own her an­i­mals, she part­ners with lo­cal farmers who do, and not just cows — sheep, goat and wa­ter buf­falo, too — us­ing only sea­sonal milk from hu­manely treated an­i­mals.

“Next I want to try cheese made from horse’s milk, like they do in Mon­go­lia,” Klah­sen says.

It’s easy to de­tect that she has a non­stop mind that runs on in­no­va­tion, orig­i­nal­ity and risk-tak­ing. “Hey, I’m just try­ing to keep the wolves from the door,” she says when I ask her about her hus­tle. “This isn’t

an easy busi­ness, es­pe­cially the pol­i­tics of food pro­duc­tion.”

In 2004, Klah­sen mort­gaged ev­ery­thing she owned to start Mon­forte. She called it her midlife cri­sis. She couldn’t un­der­stand how a prov­ince with so much agri­cul­ture pro­duced no ar­ti­sanal cheese. Right be­fore she was set to launch, she says she and her cheese­maker and busi­ness part­ner had a fall­ing out. Klah­sen be­came the cheese­maker.

Orig­i­nally rent­ing space, she has since rein­vented Mon­forte’s model, rais­ing $500,000 to build the cur­rent cheese plant. Sub­scribers sup­ported the dairy by buy­ing shares, re­paid in cheese.

Now they make more than 25 unique cheeses — all in­gre­di­ents sourced lo­cally and eth­i­cally — most sold in per­son by some­one who works for Mon­forte.

“We sell at roughly 25 to 30 farmers’ mar­kets across On­tario per week, talk­ing and tast­ing cheese. If you work for me, you sell at mar­kets.”

That’s how she rolls. Klah­sen doesn’t rely on mar­ket­ing, doesn’t use any dis­trib­u­tors, only sells direct. She’s not wor­ried about not be­ing on a cheese trail. Heck, the res­tau­rant we met at didn’t have a sign for the first six months, yet still drew a crowd and top stars on Trip Ad­vi­sor.

Jen and I talk and taste with Ruth over a plough­man’s lunch sit­ting on up-cy­cled chairs at ta­bles sur­rounded by hand­crafted artsy dé­cor. The menu fea­tures a ro­tat­ing se­lec­tion of Mon­forte cheeses, char­cu­terie, pre­serves, pick­les and other sig­na­ture spe­cial­ties.

Our cheese board sam­ples Waltz­ing Matilda, a soft, Camem­bert-style cheese made with rich wa­ter buf­falo milk swathed in bal­sam ash, and Bliss, a spring sheep’s cheese rolled in tar­ragon that tastes of liquorice and laven­der in a creamy vel­vet.

Much like her busi­ness style, her food is all about re­la­tion­ships — each cheese has its pair­ing — ours are honey, a mus­tard and, of course, beer, which Jen calls “the per­fect cheese bev­er­age.”

We fol­low up with the re­quired cheese com­fort foods: a di­vine sharp mac and cheese, “Mon­forte KD,” made with Prov­i­dence Aged Ched­dar cre­ated in part­ner­ship with the Bright dairy, plus a manda­tory gooey grilled cheese dipped in lo­cal ap­ple but­ter.

“I al­ways wanted to be a mid­wife or a doula,” says Klah­sen. We laugh.

As the Mon­forte ma­tri­arch, she is the mid­wife of cheese now, her hand guid­ing ev­ery as­pect of the busi­ness. “Food should

be beau­ti­ful in ev­ery way.”

Klah­sen is a text­book per­fec­tion­ist: “You know, I re­ally can’t en­joy my own cheeses be­cause I’m al­ways think­ing of how to make them bet­ter.” It is time for us to go, and Ruth tells us so. “I have to go yell at the cooks,” she says. I think she’s jok­ing, but maybe not. “Food wasn’t good enough. Crack­ers weren’t evenly salted. The bread in the grilled cheese was stale.”

All things I didn’t no­tice in my cheese ine­bri­a­tion. Though, Klah­sen is my kind of pow­er­house woman: she put the curse words all in the right spots. And, damn, she makes good cheese.

Shep Ys­sel­stein, Gunn’s Hill Ar­ti­san Cheese

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