I am an avid cheese lover and it’s rare that my refrigerator doesn’t contain a few delicious morsels at any given time. This list consists of 10 of my favourites but it easily could have been 50. And yes, they are all European. These days there are exquisite cheeses produced all throughout Canada; and I encourage you to find them, buy them and eat them. It’s always best to support the milk farmers and food producers that are close to home. But I also believe in knowing the history of food products, which in my opinion gives us a better appreciation for the new versions of the old classics. The second point is that local cheeses tend to have limited availability, which makes them special but also sometimes hard to find. All of these cheeses are easily found.
When purchasing cheese always buy the best you can afford. Quality cheese costs money, it is time consuming and labour intensive to make, and the price is reflective of this. But when you buy great cheese you don’t need a lot, it offers so much flavour a little goes a long way. Unless of course I have some aged Gruyère in front of me and then there’s no holding me back, a little is never enough!
Find a place to buy cheese where you know they take it seriously, and where there is good turnover of product to ensure freshness. I have suggested a few places below where you’ll be sure to get cheese that will please.
One last note, when putting together a cheese plate there are a few things to consider; try to incorporate at least 2 different milk types, whether they be cow, sheep or goat varieties. Given that cheese is often served with wine try to stick with dried fruits on the plate, such as dates, figs and apricots. The acidity of fresh fruit can wreak havoc on some wines. Other great accompaniments to the cheeses can be fruit preserves, honey and roasted nuts.
1. Gruyère (Switzerland)
A noble “Alpine” cheese in reference to the mountains where the cows graze (lucky cows) this is an exceptional cheese. Expect nutty, browned butter aromas and deep, complex earthy flavours on the palate. Beaufort or Comté are very similar cheeses if Gruyère is not available.
2. St. Agur (France)
Being considered more industrial than artisanal doesn’t make this cheese taste any less than delicious. Think butter with blue veins; creamy with a savoury dried sage note and light saltiness. Really easy to enjoy, if you’re putting an international blue on a cheese platter this one is sure to please everyone.
3. Parmigiano-Reggiano (Italy)
Buy your piece whole and break into chunks to nibble on, or grate as needed with a rasp. The mineral, saline, crystalline, nuttiness of this cheese is why it is considered the King of Cheeses.
4. Aged Manchego or Zamorano (Spain)
Both made from sheep’s milk which give them a delicious rusticity. Notes of grass and nuttiness. Its rich flavour highlighted with lemony tang and oily texture make it perfect for wine.
5. Camembert…the real one. (France)
Cheese should only be called Camembert if it is the genuine article coming from Normandy in the north of France. There are so many terrible recreations of this cheese that its image has been tarnished. If you haven’t tried the real thing you owe it to yourself to try a ripe, velvety round of Camembert with all it’s lovely mushroomy earthiness.
6. Farmhouse Cheddar (England)
The word Cheddar is synonymous with blocks of ubiquitous orange cheese, but it is also the name of the town where the cheese originated from. There are many versions, but look for a farmhouse version, orange or white, from a British producer. The good ones will deliver a delicious tangy, rich nutty flavour and a crumbly paste. There are also many well-made and easy to find Cheddar cheeses made in Canada and the US.
7. Mimolette (France)
This cheese is easily identifiable by its distinct orange colour and large round shape. It is made from cow’s milk and has the most pleasing aroma of caramel and butter. It’s texture is also lovely, from its younger version to the aged varieties this cheese offers a wealth of nutty, fruity flavour.
8. Pecorino (Italy)
The name of this cheese comes from pecora, the Italian word for sheep. And wherever there are sheep you will find Pecorino. The most widely available versions are Pecorino Romano (from the area around Rome), Sardo (from Sardegna) and Toscano (from Tuscany). The last is my favourite as the salting is not as heavy handed on this version. I always have a piece of Pecorino in the fridge as it’s a great cheese to nibble on with olives and sundried tomatoes as a quick snack, but is also an amazing grating cheese on pasta. It’s lemony tang and salty minerality add loads of flavour to whatever your preparing.
9. Macedonian-style Feta (Macedonia/Greek)
My advice on feta, find a brand you like and stick with it. There is nothing worse than a rubbery slab of flavourless feta, and there are many of them out there. Look for feta that is referred to as Macedonian-style, or Greek, and if you’re buying Canadian pick up one that is made from sheep’s milk. These are all creamier versions of feta and will heighten the flavour of any of your dishes. Feta should be pleasantly salty and briny, but you still should be able to taste the quality of the milk it was made from.
10. Crottin de Chavignol (France)
Having lived a year in the Loire region makes this cheese a sentimental favourite, in addition to the fact that it is scrumptious. Made from unpasteurized goat’s milk in the traditional pyramid form, when it is fresh it is grassy, creamy and tangy, and as it ages it reveals more rustic, barnyardy notes and becomes quite complex. A real treat and perfect with peach conserves.
Here are my 4 regular cheese shops, none will disappoint.
Starsky’s (Mississauga and Etobicoke locations)
Great selection, some very simple cheeses, but also some real stunners can be found here, and at much better prices then most retail outlets. I’m always surprised at some of the rarer cheeses I discover, their cheese buyer is doing a great job. In addition, their deli counter makes you feel like you’re back in the old country, love it. If you’re looking for Feta, they carry a small red and yellow tub of it. Don’t worry about it being too much, it will be gone before you know it.
On the pricier side but you are sure to always find what you’re looking for and the staff working the counters are always very passionate and knowledgeable.
Scheffler’s (at the St. Lawrence Market, Toronto)
Great service and terrific selection, it’s always my cheese stop if I’m at the market. Lots of great selections from Italy and Quebec.
Cheese Boutique (Etobicoke)
A wonderland of cheese, as well as plenty of other exquisite gastronomic treats. If they don’t have what you’re looking for then chances are you probably won’t find it anywhere.
And if you are in the Greater Toronto Area here is a wonderful article and list of the best cheese shops in the city by Michael Di Caro.