Fifteen years ago Ruth Klahsen was the first artisan cheesemaker to receive recognition from both chefs and food critics in our part of the province. She touched off a revolution in the small batch, handcrafted cheese world and encouraged countless other artisans to follow in her footsteps. Her enterprise began in the heart of Amish country with the use of Mennonite cow’s milk and quickly became well known to chefs and culinary enthusiasts. Klahsen has often stated that “food needs to be valued in a different way and consumers need to step up and be willing to pay for quality. We need to find a way to make artisanal food production viable.” Monforte Dairy is Ontario’s oldest operating artisanal cheese company and is a well-known presence at farmers’ markets, featuring a selection of cheese made from goat, sheep, cow and water buffalo milk.
Amongst all the cheesemongers in the Perth, Oxford and Wellington County region, there are two whose shops have become premier destinations for cheese lovers and enthusiasts. Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shoppe in Stratford, owned by master cheese maker Liz Payne, has an extensive selection of Canadian and international artisanal cheeses. The Whey Back Tasting Room is an intimate, cozy and unique space, available for private functions and for private cheese tastings and pairing events for 12 to 20 people. There is a choice of crackers, chutneys and other cheese accompaniments on offer.
Cheesemongers Andrew and Kim Wheeler want TOMME “to be the cheese shop a food-centric town like Guelph deserves.” Downtown Guelph didn’t have a cheesemonger until recently. Located off Market Square at 34 Carden Street, TOMME offers an impressive range of artisanal Canadian and international cheeses, including hard to find specialty items like Murcia Al Vino. Nicknamed Drunken Goat, this Spanish goat’s milk cheese is supple and rich in taste. Are you a fan of sheep’s milk cheese? Try the incredible raw-milk pecorino from Pienza in Italy, wrapped in walnut leaves and aged for months in earthenware crocks. The result is crumbly, deliciously sharp, and pleasantly herbal.
The friendly owners are quick with intelligent advice. They hand-cut each order to ensure premium flavour and quality. The Wheelers also offer a grilled cheese panini at lunchtime, cheese boards, local beer, craft cider and wine. There is a selection of olives, salami, spreads and crackers available, as well as cheese accessories.
Artisanal cheese producers have evolved as rules for milk management relaxed to allow on-farm cheese making in limited amounts. True artisanal cheese cannot be mass-produced and is limited in quantity with specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature. Crafted from the milk collected on the same farm where the cheese is produced, farmstead cheese is also sometimes referred to as farmhouse cheese. Farmstead cheesemakers only use milk from animals they raise, unlike artisan cheese which may include milk purchased and transported from off-farm sources.
Stonetown Artisan Cheese, outside St Marys, produces 14 Swiss mountain-style cheeses, hand-crafted by master cheesemaker Ramon Eberle. The facility also produces two different types of goat cheeses: Capri Ella is a Tilsit-style cheese and Grey is a Gruyere. Using unpasteurized milk from farmers Hans and Jolanda Weber’s herd of Holsteins, Eberle uses raw milk so that the cheese ripens as naturally as possible while the flavours improve with maturation. Award-winning cheese, curds and other local products are available to buy on-site at the farm store Tuesday to Saturday. Guided tours allow you to see the process of cheese making. 5021 Perth County Line 8 (Kirkton Road), St. Marys, stonetowncheese.com
Meet the Cheesemakers on the Oxford County Cheese Trail
The Oxford County Cheese Trail is a curated list of roughly 30 stops featuring cheese, dairy and related offerings for visitors to experience. Some of the newer stops are Habitual Chocolate in Woodstock, which makes hot chocolate, lattes and ice cream from scratch using local dairy, and Wild Comfort, which has opened just down the road from Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese, making products using local goat’s milk. Two Cheese Trail partners offering new experiences are Cindy Walker’s Chocolatea, offering a Truffle Camp, and Ottercreek Woodworks with tree-to-table cheese and charcuterie boards. Ottercreek Woodworks specializes in beautiful, handcrafted boards using sustainably sourced local wood. Each piece of wood is handpicked for its organic shape and unique character features so you’re sure to find a piece you’ll love for years to come. Pieces are also available at Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and Bright’s Cheese and Butter.
Mountainoak Cheese, located near New Hamburg, is located out of Oxford County but is closely tied to the nearby community of Plattsville. Adam van Bergeijk and his wife Hannie took over the family dairy farm in Holland from Adam’s parents in 1976. From the beginning, they had an interest in making artisan cheese on the farm. After studying cheesemaking in Gouda, Holland and running their own dairy farm outside New Hamburg, the van Bergeijks founded Mountainoak Cheese in 1996. The state-of-the-art facility uses milk from their herd. They offer 18 flavours of cheese including Wild Nettle, Black Truffle Gouda and other award-winning varieties. 3165 Huron Road, New Hamburg, mountainoakcheese.com
Another award-winner on the Trail is Shep and Colleen Ysselstein’s Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. Since the 1800s Gunn’s Hill, near Woodstock, has been a dairy farm. The Yesselstein family purchased it in the 1960’s. Raised on his family dairy farm, Shep honed his cheese making skills with apprenticeships in Switzerland, United States, and British Columbia. Gunn’s Hill has been producing Swiss-style cheeses since 2011 and has established a reputation for excellence for its 15 offerings. Be sure to try the award-winning aged Handeck and the flagship Five Brothers cheese, which is similar to a Swiss Appenzeller. 445172 Gunn’s Hill Road, Woodstock, gunnshillcheese.ca
In 1874 local farmers created Bright Cheese and Butter to put their surplus milk to use, with an emphasis on producing cheddar. By the twentieth century Bright Cheese had expanded, as had the market for Canadian cheddar, which was Canada’s second largest export. This led to the establishment of 1,242 cheddar factories in Ontario. Today Bright continues to craft award-winning cheeses at the 1800s factory and is known for all-natural, naturally-aged cheese made with 100% local milk, in the old-fashioned way. Aged cheddars, Asiago, colby, Monterey Jack, feta, havarti and specialty flavours are available in the shop. 816503 County Rd 22, Bright, brightcheeseandbutter.com
Local Dairy Products owner Amarjit Singh, his wife Gurinder Kaur, and son Sajeev Singh produce high quality artisanal, local and all-natural dairy products out of a historic cheese factory in Ingersoll. You’ll find unique products inspired by the international world of cheese including Mennonite-inspired cheese, and traditional Mexican and Latin American crema and queso. There are over 20 vegetarian products as well as authentic Indian dairy products, yogurt, (also buffalo milk) cultured butter, ghee, Koch Kase, dulce de leche, and cajeta caramel, produced under the Asli, La Vaquita and Perth County brands. 139 Victoria St, Ingersoll, localdairy.ca
Quality Sheep Milk Ltd.’s goats and sheep are fed dry hay with a non-GMO product grain diet and are milked twice a day to produce cheese on the 128-acre farm, operated by Ellis, Hazel and Sion Morris. Half the milk produced is used to craft a variety of cheese and create Greek-style yogurt. While on the Oxford County Cheese Trail, stop by the farm to pick up the trail’s only feta (both smoked and Greek-style) or the Italian-inspired pecorino Romano or pecorino Cortenese. They also make Gouda, cheddar and manchego cheese.
Around the Region
A small on-farm family business close to Lake Huron, Blyth Farm Cheese is proficient in the whole procedure of crafting great varieties of goat milk cheese. Everything from the farming and the cheese making to the packaging is completed on the farm. The Van Dorps have been successful farmers and cheesemakers for generations. The business is steeped in family roots and traditions while innovating and creating fresh and delicious variations of goat milk flavours such as smoked, jalapeno, nettle and “Blyth’s Drunken Goat,” a Gouda-style soaked in merlot. 82521 Allboro Line, Blyth, blythfarmcheese.ca
Operations at C’estbon Cheese began as a retirement project for George Taylor 18 years ago when he swapped a flock of sheep for a herd of Toggenburg and La Mancha goats. Taylor began crafting small-batch, on-farm cheese using only the milk from his own herd to create his proprietary C’estbon chèvre. In time Taylor relocated his goats to a neighbouring farm. The goat milk is now delivered from a local producer, Hewitt’s Dairy. Not a single item leaves C’estbon without Taylor’s thumbprint on it. 4675 Line 3, St Marys, cestboncheese.com
Oak Grove Cheese Factory, located in New Hamburg, is independently owned and has been a family operation since 1879. The factory maintains the quality of its cheese products by continuing to produce cheese in the same way as when the Langenegger family first started, over 80 years ago. Today there are fourth and fifth generations of the family working in the business. This is where you go to buy the creamy, washed-rind, strong-smelling cow’s milk, Limburger. 29 Bleams Road East, New Hamburg, oakgrovecheese.ca
As founding members of Ewenity Dairy Co-op, cheesemaker Elisabeth Bzikot and husband Eric of Best Baa Dairy in Fergus buy raw sheep milk from the small co-operative to make quality gourmet sheep milk products like yogurt and ice cream, and a fine collection of firm and soft sheep cheeses such as Mouton Rouge, a 60-day-aged raw milk cheese, and Ramembert, a creamy camembert style cheese. 820 Gartshore Road, Fergus, bestbaa.com
Driving the back roads through Southwestern Ontario you can sample award-winning local and artisanal cheeses, and savour scratch baking and other locally produced products. Explore the Oxford County Cheese Trail, visit a cheese factory or an on-farm cheese producer, and be sure to check out the museums devoted to cheese history and the region’s dairy heritage.
Photography credit: Dudek Photography