From wineries TO breweries to Farmers’ markets, foodies have several options for summer road trips in Ontario. But for those who like to indulge in sharp cheddar, double-cream brie or cave-aged gouda, there’s an entire trail dedicated to all things cheese in Oxford County.
“We’re cheese county,” says Gabrielle Bossy, tourism officer for the County of Oxford.
She’s not joking around: The county is home to Canada’s first cheese co-op and cheese-making school and features the longest-running cheddar factory, Bright Cheese and Butter, which has operated from the same building since 1874. Every April, the region also plays host to the Dairy Capital Cheese Fest, an event that celebrates local cheese makers, artisans, restaurants, breweries and wineries.
The county’s cheese makers have scooped up 48 awards over the past six years. So it’s the place to find — and sample — signature cheeses from around southwestern Ontario.
The drivable Oxford County Cheese Trail has 24 stops across the county, where one can experience such unique flavours as deep-fried cheese curds, brie ice cream, paneer bread pudding and Oxford cheese arancini (stuffed rice balls).
“It’s about getting a taste of the region,” Bossy says.
“At last count we had something like 14 different countries represented by cheese in Oxford. Because Canada is such a melting pot of nationalities, you really do see that reflected [in the products].”
Along with restaurants serving cheesy creations, two cheese makers on the trail offer tours: Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg and Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Woodstock. Gunn’s Hill just launched its Affinage 101 Experience, where the cheese maker puts you to work, washing rinds of cheese.
“It’s a really hands-on experience,” Bossy says. “You get to learn about how he ages cheese … and it ends with a fondue party. It’s so fun.”
Another hands-on experience can be found at Tree to Table in rural Oxford, where visitors create their own charcuterie board in the shop of a local woodworker — and then, of course, enjoy a spread of local cheese.
And Ride the Bine, a beer, wine and cider tour company, just launched its Beer Flights & Cheese Bites tour in Oxford County, featuring pairings of local cheese alongside award-winning craft brews. Wineries also offer tours, such as Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery, where visitors learn how to pair cheese with wine.
It’s impossible — at least for one’s waistline — to visit all 24 stops in one day, so some local hotels offer Oxford County Cheese Trail packages, including Elm Hurst Inn & Spa, Château la Motte and R Wee Inn. The Elm Hurst package, for example, includes accommodation in a deluxe room, chilled sparkling wine from Burning Kiln in Turkey Point, artisan chocolates from Chocolatea in Ingersoll and a gourmet cheese tray from Oxford County cheese artisans.
Many Ontario cheese shops are also promoting local cheese makers — along with artisanal products that can’t be found in the grocery store.
“We have a strong focus on local and Canadian cheese,” says Jenny Ball, owner, (aka “the Big Cheese”) of Dover Cheese in Port Dover. “We bring in a lot of local and Canadian cheeses in the summer months because we spend a lot of time educating people from out of town. They’ll never feel rushed to get out the door here.”
Ball chooses products based on the quality of the milk. At Gunn’s Hill, for example, the dairy comes from the family farm next door, which creates the ‘terroir’ of the cheese.
What makes Ontario cheese unique, however, is its variety. In Montreal, for example, a lot of cheese is washed-rind.
“They’re making dynamite cheese but they’ve got a style,” Ball says.
“Here we have a lot of options — you’re not going to go to Gunn’s Hill and then walk up the road and find the exact same cheese.”
La Jolie Cheese Shop in Aurora also promotes local farmsteads and cheesemakers, “to encourage and support cheese makers as opposed to large commercial industries,” says owner Jane Kemp.
“So we have cheeses like Back Forty — he’s pretty solo and has his own sheep but it’s a large enough production that he does go through a broker.”
Different animals, and different breeds, produce different types of milk; it depends on the climate, their environment and their diet.
That’s why the same style of cheese, using the same traditional cheesemaking techniques, can taste so different depending on that “terroir”.
“[Canada] is younger in the game but we’re coming up with unique cheeses based on terroir,” Kemp says.
“In Kapuskasing, they say the grass is amazing and the milk is gold standard because of the climate and the hardiness of the animal. You’re going to get a different type of milk than a cow lounging around in southern Italy.”
But with so many cheese makers and cheese shops in Ontario, foodies can also design their own cheese trail, whether they’re heading to cottage country or going for dinner in Niagara. Niagara Parks, for example, features a number of restaurants with Feast On certification along its parkway, preserving the culinary experiences of the Niagara River Corridor. Feast On is a certification program that recognizes businesses committed to sourcing Ontario grown and made food and drink.
“We work with 100km Foods [a local food distribution company], so we do source directly within 100 kilometres,” says Ryan Moran, senior manager of marketing with Niagara Parks.
That includes local cheese makers, such as Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station. While local cheeses can be found in Feast On restaurants and on seasonal prix fixe menus, the Niagara Pop-up Dinner Series typically features cheese on the menu.
“We choose unique locations up and down our parkway and set up a dinner there,” Moran says, whether that’s an al fresco meal in Old Fort Erie or at a Gothic mansion overlooking Niagara Falls.
There’s also the annual Cooks and Chefs Apprentice Dinner, which seeks to tell the culinary story of Niagara Parks: local growers, brewers, producers and providers. And cheese, in its many forms, is becoming a bigger part of that story.
Cheese isn’t just meant for wine; it pairs perfectly with craft beer. And beer drinkers can learn a few tips at Haliburton Highlands Brewing. Its summer kitchen will offer charcuterie boards that pair with its award-winning premium ales.
The brewery is located on-site at Abbey Gardens — a destination in its own right. This former gravel pit is now a community project that partners with local growers, producers and artisans to build the local food economy.
“It’s the complexity and variety of flavours that are possible in beer that make for some interesting pairings,” says Jewelle Schiedel-Webb, who owns Haliburton Highlands Brewing along with her husband.
Spruce Kveik, for example, a Norwegian-style farmhouse ale brewed with locally sourced spruce, pairs well with a three-year-aged gouda from Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg.
The cheese, with a dry, Parmesan-style texture and crusty salt deposits, “has a boldness to stand up to a beer.”
Visitors will be able to choose beer and cheese pairings on the brewery’s patio and buy their favourite cheeses at the Abbey Gardens Food Hub.
In addition to its regular offerings such as a four-year-aged cheddar from St. Albert Cheese Factory, “we will be featuring a number of special cheeses on rotation,” Schiedel-Webb says, “to specifically complement some of the 25 special small-batch brews we will be releasing weekly from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving.”
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