Where there’s milk, there’s got to be cheese. So it only makes sense that Oxford County — long known as the Dairy Capital of Canada — is also home to some of Canada’s finest artisanal cheesemakers.
It’s a heritage that dates back to 1840 when James Harris founded the first cheese factory in Upper Canada. In 1866, Harris put Canadian cheddar on the map with a 7,300-pound “Mammoth Cheese” that travelled to the New York State Fair and to England.
The Harris family home is now the Elm Hurst Inn & Spa, which is just one stop on the Oxford County Cheese Trail — a self-guided tour that invites visitors to discover local cheesemakers, specialty stores, museums, and entertainment (see below for full list).
Launched last summer, the tour was created in response to the growing interest in culinary tourism. “As the world becomes faster-paced people want to slow down and take the time to appreciate how their food is made,” says Oxford County tourism specialist, Meredith Maywood. “Cheese is a great example of that.”
At the industry’s peak in the 1800s, Oxford County boasted 98 separate cheese factories. The Bright Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Co. Ltd. is one of the originals, established by local farmers in 1874.
Bright Cheese and Butter
Bright Cheese and Butter has been in its current location since 1901 and is still known for its all-natural, naturally-aged cheese made with 100 percent Ontario milk. “Our cheese has a creamier, more developed taste because we use full milk and no aging agents,” says Bright Cheese and Butter’s Don Woolcitt.
In addition to cheddar, the factory produces mozzarella, colby, havarti and a variety of flavoured cheeses, with fresh cheese curds being a perennial favourite. All are available to sample and purchase at the Bright factory store, open six days a week, or at a second retail location in Shakespeare.
One of the area’s newest cheese makers, Moutainoak Cheese Ltd., is located just a short drive up the road. Adam and Hannie Van Bergeijk brought their love of dairy farming and premium cheese with them from Holland when they immigrated to Canada in 1996. Wanting to pass the dairy business on to their grown children, Adam decided to turn his cheesemaking hobby into a new business venture; Mountainoak produced its first Gouda-style cheese in July 2012.
With the barn visible from the cheese factory, it’s hard to imagine a more earth-to-table cheese experience. “We do the cropping to feed our cows,” says Adam. “And we use the milk right away. It doesn’t get cooled, so you get a really nice flavour and texture, and the cheese ages better.”
While visitors aren’t able to wander the farm unaccompanied, groups can call ahead to arrange a guided tour. The retail store is open Fridays and Saturdays.
Mountainoak now produces more than a dozen varieties of premium Dutch cheese, and has been recognized with several awards, including winner in the Special Cheese Section at the 2013 British Empire Cheese Show for their one-year aged Gouda-style cheese.
Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese
Another award-winner on the cheese trail is Shep Ysselstein of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese Ltd. Raised on his family dairy farm, Ysselstein honed his cheesemaking skills with apprenticeships in the United States, British Columbia and Switzerland. Gunn’s Hill has been producing Swiss-style cheeses since 2011, and has already established a reputation for excellence.
Gunn’s Hill Five Brothers artisan cheese won the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix award in the firm cheese category.
“Cheese is a growing market,” notes Ysselstein. “And the cheeses we make have an easy flavour to enjoy.”
Visitors to the cheese shop — open Tuesday to Saturday — can watch the cheesemaking process through large windows, or view a short video. Group tours are also available with advanced notice.
A visit to all three cheesemakers made for a leisurely day-trip from London. Those looking for a longer adventure could easily set out for a weekend escape, and take an even bigger bite out of the Oxford County Cheese Trail.
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Nicole Laidler is a freelance writer and copywriter and the owner of Spilled Ink Writing & Wordsmithing. Visit her at www.spilledink.ca