We're good, but we can be better. This is the message I took from the inaugural evening of the Canadian Cheese Awards. Held at St. Lawrence Market last Monday, the awards had a strong showing for a first-time event, with 291 cheeses entered from across the country featuring all milk types (sheep, goat, cow and water buffalo).
Having the best cheese in the world means more than just mouth-watering flavour and luscious textures; it means repeating this same feat with every batch and every season, adjusting for fluctuations in milk composition and other environmental changes. In Canada, we are getting there and we have our classics: Monforte Toscano, Avonlea Clothbound, Grey Owl and Mont-Jacob. Cheeses that deliver what you expect, satisfying as treating yourself to your favourite Chianti. But we also have cheeses that vary too much from one batch to another – from one market weekend to the next – and perhaps cheese makers who try to make too many styles of cheese before perfecting one. There are economic reasons (even need) for diversifying your products, but cheese making is a science and an art that takes time to master.
That's where skill shines and the grand prize winner, Quebec's organic, washed rind cheese Le Baluchon (from Fromagerie FX Pichet) proved itself. Each wheel I saw being cut on awards night looked as perfect as the first; the rind was moist and the paste was even in tone and texture. Every wedge of this cheese I've had over the years has displayed consistent full flavours of nuts, a balanced salt and fruitiness with a mellow but tangible pungency.
Marie-Claude Harvey, Baluchon's producer, hand-picked the wheels she entered, knowing the exact aging point at which she felt the cheese would shine. In contrast, the judges were disappointed to see other entries that were not at their individual best. Judging at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix in 2013, I was also surprised at potentially great cheeses whose rinds were cracked or that were past their prime. Attention to detail makes a cheese stand above the rest and not just at competition level; it helps it become a trusted consumer go-to.
Margaret Peters of Glengarry Fine Cheese, whose aged Lankaaster took top prize at the Global Cheese Awards last fall, says that getting a cheese to succeed takes being a bit of a perfectionist. "You can't have the illusion that this is the best it can be – you always have to beat 97 to get to 98 or 99. A competition should be a place for discussion, feedback and advice."
Competition is a hot topic in the cheese world with the possibility of CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), a free-trade deal with Europe, in the works. Canada could see European cheese imports double, a frightening proposition for local producers.
Janice Beaton, owner of Calgary's Beaton Fine Cheese and one of the the judges, also called for better communication and collaboration in the industry. "The concerns raised at the conference on Monday had a lot to do with the cost of small production cheese making, and the difficulty of competing on price. We must work together to find means by which we can improve, including lobbying for an overhaul of the supply management system."
The good news is that public support is strong for our local cheese makers and 400 people bought tickets to come out and sample the award-winners. The kind of exposure a festival like this can offer is a big boost for smaller producers. After watching an ecstatic Marie-Claude Harvey accept the award for Baluchon, Beaton said: "Cheese makers are usually in rural environments, working hard to make the best product they can, often with little connection with their colleagues in the industry. To be acknowledged with a win such as this shows them that their dedication pays off."