Last week, Chef Michael Howell (of Devour Film Food Festival, among other things) stopped by our office with award-winning cheese from the 2015 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. We get a lot of requests for desk-side meetings and such, and most of the time we have to say no, we’re busy. And this Monday we were indeed busy … but it’s hard to say no to award-winning Canadian cheese!
The tasting served as an excellent introduction to the awards, which celebrated their ninth anniversary this year. Chef Howell was an entertaining and informative host, setting up a beautiful spread (complete with grapes and nuts) in our boardroom. It was afternoon, so we cracked some wine, and opened our minds (and our mouths) to experience the wonders of Canadian cheese.
In addition to learning that “cheese should taste like what the cow ate” and that aged Gouda is an excellent stand-in for parmesan, our St. Joseph Media team gained a better appreciation of the cheese making world. Personally, I’m already looking outside the standard grocery store options and checking labels for MMI/MMS acronyms — keep reading for Chef Howell’s take on these and other nuggets of knowledge from the cheese industry.
Ottawa Mag: I understand you were a judge for the 2015 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix awards. How much cheese did you eat?
Michael Howell: The jury of 11 tasted 268 cheeses over the course of two days in Montreal in February. We were put into two judging groups of five each, overseen by Phil Belanger (jury chair since 1998) who chaperoned us through the process. Each group tasted 150 cheeses to determine the finalists and then we retested the final 27 category champions multiple times to determine the grand champion.
OM: Do you have a favourite category?
MH: I am partial to the smoked cheeses and the Blues. As a judge who is a chef, I like big, bold assertive flavours, that kick you and say “I am delicious.”
OM: What category/categories change the most from year to year?
MH: The ‘cheeses with particulates’ (flavourings) seem to vary the most from year to year. Think horseradish flavoured cheeses, cheese with green peppercorns, etc.. Cheese makers are taking bolder and sometimes crazier choices with what they are adding to the cheese to make a unique product.
OM: How did you cleanse your palate between tastings?
MH: For me, a small piece of fresh baguette, followed by a swish of sparkling water does the trick to get me ready for the next cheese. The bread is like a sponge and the water like a refreshing bit of cleansing.
OM: How have the awards changed since they started nine years ago? Do you have anything special planned for the 10th anniversary?
The Canadian Cheese Grand Prix competition takes place every two years. I‘ve only been on the jury for three editions so I can’t speak to the early days. I can atest to the calibre of cheeses made from 100 percent Canadian milk has increased every edition that I have been a part of, and the sheer number of entries indicates a willingness to make more adventurous cheeses across Canada; this indicates that cheesemaking is growing in Canada. The Dairy Farmers of Canada actually organize the competition and the gala. It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I assume that they will make it even more spectacular in 2017.
OM: Can you tell me about the upcoming changes that we will be seeing on cheese labels? What does it mean for the cheese lovers? What does it mean for cheese makers?
MH: This question should be directed to the producers of cheese and the Dairy Farmers of Canada. I know that the winners and category champions all receive marketing materials to celebrate their victories at the grand prix, thus making then stand out all that much more at the cheese retail level. Look for the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix label and the little blue cow that indicates the product is made with 100 percent Canadian milk.
OM: What would you say to someone who says that they only buy inexpensive grocery store cheese? What’s the difference? What are they missing?
MH: It’s important for people who buy cheese and are actually thinking about the impact of what they buy to remember that they are supporting Canada’s dairy farmers when they purchase cheeses that are made with 100 percent Canadian cow’s milk. People should be aware that when they buy some of the grocery cheeses, that they are often made with Modified Milk Ingredients (MMI) and or Modified Milk Solids (MMS), of which most of the production of these additives are from outside Canada. This takes away the art of cheese making in Canada. Eating a little bit less quantity of a quality product is what we all should be striving for — more flavour, more passion, less mass produced product, more support for cheese making excellence in quality products made in our own country.