Stop – do you hear that noise? Is it the rumble of distant thunder? And what’s that colossal shadow? The ground shakes, the birds flee, as – terrifyingly – a huge cheese trundles into view. Laugh not, people of Ontario – in the very near future an 8,900 pound chunk of cheese will be coming to a fair or festival near you. According to a recent Ontario Cheese Society newsletter, there are awesome plans ahead for the promotion of provincial goat, cow, and sheep cheeses. A blockbuster blend of all three is in the works. The OCS has decided to salute a century-old legend, a 22,000 pound all-Canadian tower of cheese made for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (enshrined for all time by Perth County’s Mammoth Cheese Memorial). The next model will be merely gargantuan, and will tour our local highways and byways in summer 2009, spreading cheese cheer wherever it goes. It’s a fromage homage, if you will. Since the 19th century version ended up crashing through the floorboards of its display stage, Shelf Life will be prepared to run for our lives.
On second thought, maybe not so fast. If goat cheese is in the vicinity, we’ll be sticking around. Shelf Life is particularly fond of goat cheese at this time of year – perhaps because summer heat and summer appetites are a perfect match for its lightness, versatility, and earthiness. A really good chevre yields a sly kick somewhere in the mix – a sort of flavour equivalent of a toss of the horns. Shelf Life recommends pairing this cheese with roasted beets (now in season locally), baking it in a sweet or savoury tart, or serving up a classic French salad – goat cheese rolled in bread crumbs, baked and served on a bed of greens & drizzled with a vinaigrette. But can Canadians find decent varieties in the nation’s grocery stores? Shelf Life convened a panel of three culinary billy goats gruff to find out.
Big cheeses all, this week’s expert judges are: Elizabeth Baird, Food Editor, Canadian Living magazine; writer, filmmaker and epicure Gail Singer; and Chris Zielinski, executive chef, Ultra Supper Club, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars.
Unripened Goat Cheese*
Product Of France
available at selected health and gourmet food shops
Elizabeth: Mild aroma, no hint of the barnyard, log-like appearance – this one won’t frighten the horses. Brand One has a dense, crumbly texture and a creamy rich taste. It goes well with fruit. It’s a little like cream cheese, so it would work as a good introduction for goat cheese debutantes.
Gail: Brand One reminds me a bit of the old style Winnipeg cream cheese, which was quite tart. It’s white and smooth and the texture is slightly chalky. Not a lot of goat here, but it’s pleasant. This is goat cheese for people who don’t like the idea of goat cheese.
TWO AND A HALF STARS**1/2
Chris: The Italians are making some very interesting goat cheeses; I don’t know what they’re putting in their animals – probably not tin cans – but the results are brilliant. This one looks dry and on the dense side. I’m getting a sweet, silky taste, and the texture really is like cream cheese. No goat funk, but it isn’t bad.
Brand One Total SEVEN AND A HALF STARS *******1/2
Woolwich Dairy Inc.
Unripened Goat Milk Cheese
Product Of Ontario
widely available; for more information visit www.woolwichdairy.com
Elizabeth: It’s got that typical crumbly texture in the mouth, and the flavour really lasts. Brand Two tastes ripened to me, authentically dairy, with a touch of the rustic. I like the tartness as well. I know exactly what I’d do with this one – I’d bring out the cheesecake pan.
Gail: I like this one because it’s honest. The appearance is not fancy and not cheap and not an off-putting shade of white. There’s some acidity in the taste, the texture is enjoyable, and the creaminess is fine. I prefer it with fruit – it isn’t a knockout on the bread.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2
Chris: I’m enjoying this one; it’s doing everything well. There’s a nice balance between creamy and crumbly. The taste is bright, creamy, and acidic all at the same time. You can taste the goat milk. And I think there’s a sweet smell there. Brand Two gives good goat.
FOUR AND A HALF****1/2
Brand Two Total TWELVE STARS ************
Chevre des Alpes
%100 per cent Organic Unripened Goat Milk Cheese
Available at health and gourmet food stores; for more information go to www.damafro.ca
Elizabeth: In Canada, the really superior goat’s cheeses are from Quebec, I find. And this isn’t one of them. Brand Three doesn’t look too bad – it’s sleek and crumbly – and the texture is what you would expect, but the flavour is unappetizing. It just doesn’t taste as complex or as genuine as the others.
Gail: For me it starts with the odour, which is sharp and unpleasant in an artificial way, like processed cheese slices. After that Brand Three doesn’t get much better.
Chris: Canadian independent goat cheese makers are producing some excellent product, but distribution is a problem – people should rise up and demand more Canadian artisanal cheeses from their stores. Don’t know what this is. Brand Three tastes tired, like it’s been sitting around for too long. The other brands are shiny; this one is matte. It smells like somebody’s basement, somebody you don’t like, and tastes way too much like plastic.
ONE AND A HALF STARS*1/2
Brand Three Total TWO AND A HALF STARS **1/2
Salt Spring Island Cheese Company
Soft Fresh Goat Cheese
Available at gourmet and specialty food stores, and at selected Dominion stores in Ontario. For more info go to http://www.saltspringcheese.com
Elizabeth: I love the fresh look, and the terrific smell – it’s like a French spring cheese. It’s moist and wet, like a ricotta, as if it’s just been drained. Brand Four is very tart – it hits a nice pitch of sourness – which you can offset with bread. I’d serve this one with olives.
Gail: The smell is pleasantly goaty and the appearance is like pressed cheese. It’s very strong. What’s interesting about Brand Four is that it’s smooth but not creamy.
Chris: I’m getting a strong acidic whiff from this one, like the smell of certain wines. Delicate texture, a lot of moisture on the outside, interesting lemon taste. I really think this one is a contender, but for me it’s a cheese that goes with bread, not fruit.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2
Brand Four Total EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2
Results: Judges commended the winner, Woolwich, by making devil horns with their fingers and braying lustily. They also nibbled happily on the other favourite, Salt Spring, and grazed a bit on Chevretine. It was decided that Damafro should try much harder, or else consumers will leave it alone, even gang up on it – and then it will become the scapegoat cheese.
Off The Menu: There is a variety of goat cheese from Wales called ‘Pantysgawn’. Shelf Life can’t think of a more apt, descriptive, results-oriented name, because given the right company, a fresh baguette, a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and some tart, frisky goat cheese – well, Pantysgawn perfectly describes our reaction.