I'm looking out into the dining room of Toca, the tony restaurant at Toronto's new Ritz-Carlton hotel, from inside a glass-enclosed cheese cave that's a cross between a luxury kitchen and a pungent barn. Chef Tom Brodi is using a tool called a Girolle to shave paper-thin curls of Manchego into rosette-shaped flavour pops.
As the sheep's milk cheese dissolves in my mouth, I have a revelation: Manchego isn't made in a wheel - it's actually a drum shape. It's easy to get accustomed to the generic, pre-cut wedges of this popular Spanish cheese you buy at the store. And that's when the concept of this room lodges itself in my cheese-loving heart. In its cool, damp, smelly interior you're encouraged to get up close and personal with your cheese plate. Each full wheel, log, drum, crottin or pyramid is displayed to show off the craft that has gone into its making.
"This is the only accessible cheese cave in Canada," Mr. Brodi says, and the only one of its kind at any Ritz-Carleton. Accessible in this case means showroom as much as aging/storage facility. The transparent-walled sanctuary is in the middle of the Toca dining room.
"Already we've had queues of 18 waiting to get in. We showcase Canadian food and believe our Canadian wines and cheese can compare to any other," Mr. Brodi says.
The cheese cave is stocked with 80 per cent Canadian products, including majestic wheels of Thunder Oak Gouda, luscious Niagara Gold and creamy Bleu d'Élizabeth.
Though artisanal cheese has been a growing trend in recent years, the idea of creating this 10-by-10-foot pièce de résistance seems prescient considering it would have been in the plans for at least five years. Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Melanie Greco notes that the luxury hotel chain has been working with a new philosophy to "pull back the curtains" and offer guests a less pretentious, more interactive experience.
The cheese cave was set up with the help of Afrim Pristine of Toronto's Cheese Boutique, who got involved in the project two years ago.
"Cheese is more than just fermented milk; people put their blood, sweat and tears into these cheeses," Mr. Pristine says. "Even if people don't like cheese, bring them in there and let them see what The Ritz is doing."
He reinforces what Mr. Brodi has told me about the level of staff training: The staff don't have to imagine what it's like to wash a cheese wheel every other day while it's aging; they see it.
One side of the room is dedicated to aging and the other side is "ready to serve," holding more of the softer cheeses. Everything sits on shelves made of Canadian beech, which Mr. Brodi rubs with mineral oil every other day to maintain moisture.
Some cheeses are placed on traditional straw mats, which are rinsed in a brine solution every two days. The glass doors on the ready-to-serve side are sprayed with water to keep the air moist, and containers of water on the shelves act as mini-humidifiers.
And of course there is the top-of-the-line technology that holds humidity in the room at 50 per cent and temperatures between 14 and 16C. The bottom line, Ms. Greco says, is that "the cheese here is not just cared for; it's nurtured."
I spot two small Babybels tucked below a row of elegant goat-cheese pyramids from Quebec.
Mr. Brodi laughs. "For the kids," he says.
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.