The chain of events that birthed Ontario’s rich history of cheesemaking all started with the lowly wheat midge.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a population explosion of the fragile insect, which decimated the wheat crops. In response to failing crops, many Ontario farmers converted their operations to dairy, which led to a new abundance of local milk, kick-starting a cheesemaking tradition that started with Cheddar.
Ontario became known for the quality and craft of its early Cheddars - so much so that Ontario Cheddars were regularly exported to England, the home of Cheddar cheese. In 1867, more than 200 new cheese factories opened their doors in the province. Local cheesemakers like Balderson Cheese (1881), St-Albert Cheese (1894), Empire Cheese (1870s) and Bright Cheese (1874) still produce coveted cheeses from recipes with roots reaching back to this era.
What do you do when you perfect your craft?
You find new challenges.
While we should all take pride and regularly indulge in this noble lineage, the Ontario cheese landscape has evolved beyond Cheddar. Over the past hundred years, cheesemakers from around the world have brought their craft to the province and have expanded their repertoire to optimize the quality and richness of Ontario milk. This creativity has been rewarded by a broad range of distinctive and globally recognized cheeses in various styles. Today, you’ll find everything from award-winning artisan French, Alpine and Italian-style cheeses to secret farmstead cheeses you won’t find anywhere else except in Ontario.
Recognizing & Classifying Cheeses
Cheese is a work of art, created by local landscapes, dairy cows and the cheesemaker's unique cheesemaking craft and style.
There really isn’t a universal classification system for cheese, so cheeses are generally recognized and grouped by their “characteristics”, or features attributed to differences within the cheesemaking process, including milk origin, moisture content, the addition of bacteria or moulds and the aging process and duration. For example, texture-based classifications are based on the amount of moisture in the cheese, with hard cheeses having the least and soft cheeses having the most.
Fresh, Soft & Semi-Soft Cheeses
Soft cheeses are generally grouped into two groups: ripened and unripened.
Soft, unripened cheeses are minimally processed, primarily drawing their flavour from their primary ingredient: local milk. Mascarpone, ricotta, quark, cream cheese and cheese curds are all soft, unripened or “fresh” cheeses.
Soft, ripened cheeses include Camembert- and Brie-style cheeses, which have unique and edible “bloomy rinds” from an added surface mould. This mould is the catalyst for the release of the enzyme responsible for breaking down the protein in the ripening cheese, resulting in the signature textures and flavours these cheeses are known for. Taleggio is a great example of a soft, ripened cheese with a washed rind.
You can find Ontario-made Taleggio-style cheese sold as Taleggio Locale, by Albert’s Leap (Quality Cheese), which has been awarded third (2019) and second place (2018) in the famous British Empire Cheese Competition.
Firm, Semi-Firm & Hard Cheeses
Like fine wine, cheeses mature and their flavours become more complex with age. Crafting harder cheeses is a more intensive process that varies by the cheesemaking style.
Firm cheeses include Gouda and Cheddar cheeses along with a wide variety of unique aged artisan cheeses, while Parmesan and Aged Gouda varieties are examples of hard cheeses.
Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg, Ontario and Thunder Oak Cheese Farm in Neebing, Ontario are well-established makers of outstanding aged and flavoured Gouda cheeses. World-class Cheddars are made by Empire Cheese in Campbellford, Maple Dale Cheese in Plainfield, Balderson Cheese in Balderson, Jensen Cheese in Simcoe, to name just a few!
Looking to expand your local cheese palate? You can also try specialty firm or hard cheeses from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster (The Lankaaster), Stonetown Artisan Cheese in St. Marys (Wildwood or Grand Trunk) and Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Woodstock (Handeck or 5 Brothers).
Blue cheeses are semi-soft cheeses, with a signature blue or green veining or mottling caused by the addition of the edible mold penicillium. The mold grows in small natural cavities or perforations in the ripening cheese and helps give it its unmistakeable, sharp flavour.
Blue cheeses may be smooth and creamy or hard and crumbly, but they’re undeniably distinctive. In Ontario, look for the incredible, award-winning Devil’s Rock from Thornloe Cheese in Thornloe, Ontario with its signature black wax casing or the outstanding cheese The Celtic Blue from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario.
Pasta Filata Cheeses
The Italian name “pasta filata” quite literally means “spun paste”, and encompasses a variety of young stretched or pulled-curd cheeses. The most popular of these is mozzarella. Pulled and shaped by hand from the curd stage, burrata is a fresh pasta filata cheese, while scamorza, caciocavallo and provolone are excellent examples of aged varieties.
In Ontario, the greater Toronto area is home to many world-class Italian-style cheesemakers. Look for fresh burrata from Quality Cheese, provolone from Ferrante Cheese and mozzarella from Santa Lucia (International Cheese).