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