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sue riedl on cheese

Ruth Klahsen is back - and ready to grab the cow by the teat. Construction on the Ontario cheese maker's new dairy has started, and she plans to churn out curd in time for the 2010 spring milking.

Production came to a halt last year while Ms. Klahsen, one of the top artisan cheese producers in the province, put her efforts into getting a plant funded and built. That meant her many loyal customers - which include some of Toronto's top chefs and cheese boutiques, as well as local foodies - faced a dwindling supply.

But the wheels will be rolling soon - and there will be more than ever before. Adding to her repertoire of sheep and goat products, Ms. Klahsen will be making five styles of cow's milk cheeses. She has chosen some of Europe's classic recipes to bring to Ontario: Taleggio from Italy, Abondance, Salers and gaperon from France, and a Spanish-style torta.

In the meantime, she is throwing her loyal followers a bone in the wedge shape of her beloved Monforte Toscano (made in the spring at the Mariposa Dairy in Lindsay, Ont., its temporary location).

Pecorino Toscano originates in Italy ( pecora is "sheep" in Italian). It's a pressed, cooked cheese with a natural rind whose history dates back more than 2,500 years. The Monforte Toscano, which has been aged six months, has a rustic, mottled rind that brings to mind an artifact just unearthed. Its paste is a pale straw colour, with warm tea tones near the rind. It exudes a pastoral well-being that engages the senses before you even take a bite. The texture is dense with some crumble, but remains moist. The flavours are soft and have an earthy depth, a sour cream richness and a subtle, sweet complexity with a bit of meatiness at the rind.

The Toscano was the first cheese Monforte made. Five and a half years ago, Ms. Klahsen, a former chef, had mortgaged everything she owned to raise $250,000 and start a cheese-making business. Weeks before it was set to open, her cheese maker (and business partner) quit. She also had to throw out $160,000 worth of cheese because of issues over bacterial counts.

Left to her own devices and with just $2,000 in the bank, she opened a book about cheese, saw the Toscano, liked how it looked and got on with it. "All of a sudden it was kind of just me," Ms. Klahsen says. She became the head cheese maker - with barely any idea of where to start.

Much has changed since then, including the way Ms. Klahsen conducts business. Earlier this year, she implemented an innovative system called Monforte Renaissance 2010 to raise funds for the new facility. It's a community shared agriculture (CSA) plan. Essentially, a subscriber can support the dairy by prepaying for cheese. In the "wedge o' cheese" subscription plan, for example, you make a $200 investment and receive $250 worth of cheese vouchers valid for the next five years. Supporters now number more than 600.

The program is accepting subscriptions until December - making it the perfect artisanal and sustainable gift for the holidays. And ensuring you'll have a solid supply of Toscano well into 2015.

On the block

Cheese: Monforte Toscano

Origin: Stratford, Ont.

Producer: Monforte Dairy

Cheese maker/owner: Ruth Klahsen

Milk: pasteurized sheep

Type: firm, natural rind, pressed, cooked

Shape: 1.8 kilogram wheel

Note: For information about CSA subscriptions:

Distributor: Provincial Fine Foods

Availability (Ontario only):

Toronto: Cheese Boutique, Pusateri's, Grain Curd and Beans, Summerhill Market, Culinarium, St. Lawrence Market (North)

London: Smith Cheese

Kitchener: Vincenzo's

Guelph: Chartelli's

Ottawa: La Bottega Nicastro

Bayfield: Forager Foods

Stratford: Stratford Farmers Market

Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.