There was a dark horse contender at the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. In February, I was part of an eight-member jury that blind-tasted 225 cheeses over two days with unexpected results: When the individual scores were totalled, the top prize went to a simple ricotta. This unpretentious cheese had garnered exceptional grades in technical and aesthetic evaluation, surpassing the bloomy rinds, the washed rinds and the aged Goudas.
The official results, announced on April 18, surprised even the cheese's producer, Quality Cheese, a family-run business in Vaughan, Ont. Quality Cheese shook up this year's race with two firsts, winning Grand Champion with a fresh cheese and clinching the overall title for Ontario, the only time a Quebec cheese has not taken best-in-show since the competition began in 1998.
The prestigious biennial event, sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, also crowned 19 category champions that spanned the country, including Quebec winners Le Mamirolle (Fromagerie Éco-Délices) and Le Bleu d'Élizabeth (Fromagerie du Presbytère), Alberta's Grizzly Gouda (Sylvan Star) and Queso Fresco Cheese (Latin Foods Inc.) and Cows Smoked and Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from PEI. First-time entrants at Gunn's Hill also grabbed a win for Ontario with their Five Brothers firm cheese.
If you're reading this and thinking, "A ricotta, seriously?" I get it. Fresh, young cheeses are not typically given the same reverence as a perfectly ripened wheel of the alpine-style Louis D'Or (the 2011 winner) or even a lush, savoury washed rind like La Sauvagine (2006 winner). But as with a ripe avocado – with its pure, rich flavour and silky, buttery texture – a ricotta's mellow but immaculate flavours can seduce.
Albert Borgo, vice-president of Quality Cheese, is a fourth-generation cheese producer – the recipe for his ricotta comes from his Italian grandfather. "Ricottas are similar and if you buy it as an ingredient [in a dish], you may not look for the differences," he says. "But if you're paying attention, like a wine or cheddar connoisseur, you notice the subtleties."
The trick to making a superior ricotta lies in showcasing the fresh qualities of the milk the cheese is made from. Ricotta is usually made from whey (the low-fat liquid remains of cheese making), but Quality Cheese uses a combination of whole milk (which gives the cheese its full flavour) and low-acid whey left over from the production of their double-cream brie that adds to the overall sweetness. The Quality Cheese ricotta is refined and balanced in flavour, finishing full and sweet – as if you've had a sip of light cream.
Traditionally, ricotta would have drained in baskets and been consumed while still warm or extremely fresh. The winning ricotta comes packaged in the individual baskets (rather than being scooped into plastic containers) to limit handling or excess manipulation – a first in Canada. The goal is to preserve a homemade, artisanal quality, even on the shelf. To serve, just pop it onto a plate with a drizzle of honey or some ripe berries and fruit.
Available in Ontario at Quality Cheese, Cheese Boutique (end of week) and coming soon to Loblaws and Zehrs. Longo's carries it under the Longo's signature brand. In Vancouver, Bosa Foods carries it and in Quebec check Fromagerie Hamel and smaller boutique stores.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.