The 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix took place in Montreal this past week, drawing the best of the best in Canadian cheese.
The Ricotta made by Quality Cheese Inc., in Vaughan, Ontario made history as the first fresh cheese and the first cheese from Ontario to be honoured as a Grand Champion. This impressive fresh cheese was lauded by cheese experts who judged the Grand Prix entries. Quality Cheese has four generations of cheese makers who have beenmaking and selling Italian style cheeses. Their products are very popular with fans that flock to their Vaughan, Ontario location to buy the cheese fresh.
In total, 62 cheese makers submitted 225 cheeses this year -- all made from 100% Canadian milk. Of these 225 cheeses, 58 made it into the finals in February, and 19 winners were selected - one per category. These winners from across the country - Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island - were announced at the Gala of Champions on April 18, 2013.
Of course, many will be wondering how a winner is selected, from such a diverse group of cheeses. Each cheese is judged in its category, according to their characteristics. So who makes these decisions and how?
I had the privilege of observing the work of the judges at the competition in a closed session at the Institut d'hôtellerie et de tourisme de Montréal in February. An elite group of cheese specialists, award-winning chefs and best-selling food writers, come from across the country eager to taste the best of Canada's cheese industry. I thoroughly enjoyed this weekend and appreciate the hard work of the judges.
Wheels and blocks of cheese were shipped in, each waiting for their moment in the spotlight. Before the tasting can begin, cheeses must be tempered to maximize their flavour, aroma, texture.
While being there, I was happy to step up to the task of cutting the cheeses. In some cases, the cheese wheel to be cut was over 40 pounds!
Meanwhile the judges are preparing their palates and optimizing cheese-tasting conditions. They avoid subtle distractions such as strong perfumes, lipsticks, heavy meals or other pungent odors.
Not unlike wine tasting, there is an art to cheese tasting!
Judges, look for very specific criteria (each category has a unique profile and its own judging criteria), including texture and body, colour, appearance, finish, flavour (e.g. mushroom-like, nutty, milky, sweet, salty, etc) and more.
Judges don't only taste the cheese; they smell it, roll it in their fingers, examine the uniformity of the texture. They note its colour and smell. To the trained eye, a piece of cheese is much more than a great snack; it is the product of years of practice and innovation.
By the end of the two days each judge will have tasted and tested all 225 cheeses. Even for the biggest cheese fans, this is work! Palates have to be cleansed, breaks taken.
At the end, one Grand Champion emerges.
It's a huge honour. Over the years, I have seen the surprise and excitement in the eyes of the winning cheese makers, but huge pride as well! This is not just a title that is awarded; Dairy Farmers of Canada will also actively support and promote the champion cheeses in various ways, through public relations, marketing help, features in the All you need is Cheese magazine, websites, events, business development and other means.
This year's Grand Champion is a living proof of the success achieved when cheese makers expertly combine contemporary manufacturing techniques with old world recipes.
Fresh cheeses are usually light and creamy, with a slight acidic taste and smooth texture, whereas the surface-ripened soft cheeses have a mushroom-like taste and aroma. This Ricotta is excellent on its own and quite versatile - as part of an appetizer, entrée or dessert. Most of all, it proves to be refined, delicate and well-balanced.
This turn of events speaks to Canada's diversified and modern dairy industry. We have innovative people. We have proud artisans. And we produce some of the best cheeses in the world!