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sue riedl on cheese

Five years ago James Keith, owner of Back Forty Artisan Cheese, had an idea: What would happen if he torched a wheel of cheese?

His goal was to create a cheese with a toasted exterior rind - the challenge was not having the wheel turn into fondue during the process. This innovative idea would become Bonnechere, a raw milk sheep cheese named after the Ottawa Valley's Bonnechere River.

Mr. Keith's inspiration came from a book called Cheese of France. "The picture I saw was very crude," he says, "it was literally a round cheese that was burnt - but it gave me the idea of flaming a cheese. I was at a place that I was experimenting and trying to find something that was mine."

After some trial and error Mr. Keith refined his technique: He'd sit the cheese on a big block of ice while he used a blow torch to toast one side at a time. "I was really pleased with it and I liked how the toasting gave the cheese an infusion of smoke."

Produced on Mr. Keith's farm in Lanark, Ont., Bonnechere is a semi-firm, pressed cheese made from the summer milk of Mr. Keith's own flock of sheep and aged for four months.

Bonnechere's taste is gentle in impact but has a complexity of flavour: It's tangy with a hint of salt and a nice balance of sweetness. Don't expect the impact of a true smoked cheese - any caramel, woody qualities reveal themselves in a welcome, but low-key smoulder. The texture is supple, like a Gouda, resulting in an enjoyable springiness in the mouth.

Its trademark, toasted, toffee-coloured rind is speckled with a bold, dotted texture that Mr. Keith says was created serendipitously from the holes in the draining mats that the cheese rests on. "I thought the shape was boring so I flattened it again with some weights but no moulds around it … the cheese picks up the mat texture because it is pressed between these two mats, one on each side."

This unusual second pressing, done after the cheese has already been pressed in order to knit the curd together and expel whey, gives the cheese the unique appearance of a flattened disc.

Mr. Keith's cheese-making business is a one-man operation. He and his late wife Elizabeth Harker left their teaching professions in 2000 to pursue rural life on their farm. Raising sheep offered income opportunities from wool, meat, milk and potential breeding programs, but once Mr. Keith started making cheese, he was hooked. The cheeses were turning out nicely and friends were asking, "Can I buy these?" His enthusiasm grew and gradually cheese-making became his focus.

Bonnechere is produced in small quantities and this month is a good time to seek it out. Where there's smoke, there's Bonnechere.

On the block

Cheese Bonnechere

Origin Lanark, Ont.

Producer Back Forty Artisan Cheese

Owner James Keith

Cheese maker James Keith

Milk raw, sheep

Type semi-firm, lightly cooked, pressed, toasted rind

Shape 3-kilogram wheel

Distributor Provincial Fine Foods or direct from

Availability (Ontario only)

Toronto: Culinarium, Scheffler's Deli, Whole Foods, Fiesta Farms

Newmarket: Nature's Emporium

Guelph: Chartelli's Fine Cheeses

Stratford: The Milky Whey

Collingwood: Dags and Willow

Kingston: Pan Chancho

Perth: Foodsmiths

Ottawa: Il Negozio Nicastro, La Bottega, Serious Cheese

Carp: Carp Farmer's Market

Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.