The cheese plate gets competitive

Two cheddars, two Swiss and a flavoured havarti—where’s the sexy backstory in that?

The cheese plate gets competitivePart of the burgeoning appeal of local artisanal cheeses—particularly in tough financial times, when more fine dining happens at home—is that, like wines, they offer hosts the opportunity to regale guests with tales of bucolic settings, meticulous producers, wholesome ingredients, and age-old production methods. “Traditionally, in weaker economic times, cheese has actually grown because it’s an affordable luxury,” says Kathy Guidi, dean of the Cheese Education Guild in Toronto, Canada’s first school for cheese “sommeliers.” Despite the downturn, the cheese-as-status-food trend shows no sign of receding. In some circles, assembling the right combination of cheeses—textures, flavours, pedigree—is more than a labour of love. It’s a competitive sport.

“When we do our cheese boards here, we actually print out descriptions of all the cheeses for the customers,” says Christie Silversides of Toronto’s Leslieville Cheese Market. “They want to be able to tell their friends, ‘Hey, this is made in some little farm off in Prince Edward County, and it’s aged for two years—they want to know all of that.” With so much to learn, it’s not surprising some eager students have taken to cramming. Several of Silversides’ customers even keep cheese diaries, “little notebooks, so they know what they’ve tried and little notes about whether they liked it or not.”

Sometimes a great backstory alone can help drive a bestselling cheese. Gurth Pretty, author of The Definitive Guide to Canadian Artisanal and Fine Cheese, is the owner of Epicurean Expeditions, which sources and sells Canadian cheeses at farmers’ markets around Toronto. One of his recent favourites is called “indiscretion,” by Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy in Millbank, Ont. “I’ve nicknamed it ‘sex on the finger,’ ” he says. “It’s a soft, Camembert-style goat-milk cheese rubbed with grappa. One day when I picked some up, Ruth’s son said to me, ‘Do you know why it’s called indiscretion? It’s because Mom got a little indiscreet one night when she sampled too much grappa!’ When it’s nice and ripe and oozy in the centre, I would offer samples to customers at the farmers’ market and their eyes would just roll. They’d look at their partners and say, ‘Hotel room! Now!’ ”

Canadians’ appetite for sophisticated artisanal cheeses has been on a steady upwards trajectory since the ’60s, reaching record highs in 2007. In 1980, Canadians ate 2.3 kg per capita of “variety” cheeses (those other than cheddar or processed cheese). Now, the average Canadian eats 5.5 kg per capita. Gourmet cheese boutiques appear to be popping up in every neighbourhood, and in fine restaurants, a cheese course menu—peppered with words like “earthy,” “nutty,” “hand-stretched” and “cave-aged”—is becoming standard. Demand for local product is growing particularly fast. “I sell a lot of B.C. cheese because people really like the idea that they know where the farm is and who runs the farm,” says Allison Spurrell, co-owner of the popular Vancouver cheese boutique Les Amis du Fromage. Since Klahsen started making cheese in 2004, her business has doubled in sales every year, which is why she recently shut down operations to build her own Monforte dairy, set to open in 2010.

For those who remain boggled by talk of “triple cream,” “wash rind,” and “organic rennet,” there are a few simple rules to keep in mind. First, avoid being too safe. (“Two cheddars, two Swiss, and a flavoured cream cheese or, let’s say, a flavoured havarti, would be a bad cheese plate,” says Guidi.) On the other hand, some people try to evince a sophisticated palate by grouping a series of obnoxious cheeses together. “Periodically,” says Spurrell, “I’ve had somebody buy something that they thought people would hate on purpose because they were trying to show them up and buy something so scary they would be scared to eat it.”

When it comes to cheese plate etiquette, the worst thing a host can do, says Pretty, is fail to identify the cheeses. “You don’t want people saying, ‘Okay, that’s the orange one: it must be cheddar.’ Or, ‘That one’s blue—but which blue?” Also, avoid cutting a cheese up into little cubes—which dries it out and encourages people to swallow it without really savouring it. And if nothing else, Pretty says, the least you can do is supply a different knife for each cheese. “There’s nothing worse than someone who’s just had a piece of blue cheese [using] the same knife to cut the Camembert. Ew,” he says, “it’s a ‘you put your peanut butter in my chocolate’ kind of situation.”