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I Went to the Oscars of Canadian Cheese

Every two years, cheesemakers from across Canada vie for the title of Canada's best cheese at this awards show where winning doesn't just mean bragging rights, it means skyrocketing sales.

If you took the Oscars, subtracted about an hour of acceptance speeches and awful skits, and then added endless platters of cheese and jazz renditions of Spice Girls and Beyonce songs, then you get the best awards show ever: The Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.

Put on by the Dairy Farmers of Canada council every other year since 1998, the Grand Prix awards the best cheeses put out by producers across the country. It's partly an excuse for cheesemakers to take off their hairnets and get dressed up for a night, but above all it's the start of a promotional boost to get Canucks (and those abroad) to eat more Canadian cheese. Not that we need much convincing considering the country's dairy industry brought in $6 billion in 2012, but with recent relaxed trade agreements from Europe that would allow an additional 16,000 tonnes of cheese to be imported into Canada, a reminder to buy local doesn't hurt.

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Sure, our nation's cheeses don't date back to the medieval times like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but our cheese still has deep roots in Canada's culinary history. Cheesemaking in Canada dates back to somewhere between 1608 to 1610 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in what is now Quebec. Soon after his arrival, French settlers brought over their cheesemaking skills to the province. To this day, Quebec rules the country's soft cheese market, as well as the Grand Prix's soft cheeses categories.

Meanwhile, Loyalists fleeing from the American Revolution more than a century later introduced harder, sharper, British-ier Cheddar cheeses in what is now Ontario and Quebec. In more modern times, waves of immigrants from across the globe diversified Canada's cheese portfolio. "You have people from multiethnic backgrounds moving to urban centres like Vancouver, driving up demand for cheesemakers to start making Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Ukrainian, Indian cheeses," says chef Michael Howell, one of the 11 judges who tasted 268 entries over a weekend in February.

Amarjit and Gurinder Singh.

Case in point: husband-and-wife team Amarjit and Gurinder Singh, who carved out a niche for themselves two decades ago by making quesos—as well as ghee and paneer—at their Ingersoll-based creamery Local Dairy Products. "There was barely any Indian cheese on the market," says Amarjit, who took home the award for best mozzarella with his Oaxaca. "We're one of the first to make ethnic cheeses in Canada, and now a lot of big Mexican restaurants in Toronto use our Oaxaca. You probably didn't expect that from a Sikh."

I also didn't expect the event to be so, well, fancy. Guests arrived at the Liberty Grand, which is grand in the Eyes Wide Shut house way and not in the airport convention hall way. Everyone was in suits and dresses, and mingled upstairs munching on foie gras on brioche before sitting down for the awards, which was co-hosted by TV personality Ben Mulroney. Think of him as the Canadian Ryan Seacrest, and also the son of this guy. I'm not sure if I should be grateful or disappointed about the lack of cheese puns throughout the evening. The only cheese joke from the entire night came from the event photographer who said to our table, "All right, everyone smile and say...well, you know."
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The award announcements were broken into four parts: soft cheeses, medium cheeses, hard cheeses, and best-in-show. The 27 categories ranged from best blue cheese (Le Bleu d'Élizabeth) and semi-soft cheese (Fleur de Weedon), to five categories devoted to Cheddar and another three for Gouda. The best category name, hands-down, is "fresh cheese with grilling properties" because it reminded me of those really specific awards categories that are added to keep up with the times, like when the VMAs added a best video with a social message award.

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After each round of winners were announced (it had everything: envelopes, and a pretty girl to hand out trophies—though no acceptance speeches), big platters of the winning cheeses with fruit and bread would arrive at all the tables while the live band played jazz renditions of Madonna's "Hung Up" and Rihanna's "Please Don't Stop the Music." Since our table was half empty and the platters were all the same size regardless, we each all had at least three servings of cheese. Of course, we all made the mistake of front-loading too much on the soft (fatty) cheeses in the beginning, which made us barely touch the third round of cheese. "Do you have takeaway boxes?" I asked the PR people. They laughed. I didn't.
READ MORE: I Got Plastered at the Cheese Rave

The announcement of the best cheese in Canada was more dramatic than announcing Best Picture at the Oscars. We all had to get out of our seats and make our way across the hall to another large room that was lined with signs proclaiming the night's winners like a hall of fame (kind of like this). We moved past the dessert table piled high with macarons, eclairs, tarts, and crème brûlée and made our way to the stage to watch a video of last year's winner say, in a quasi-Miss America manner, how his life has improved since winning the title.

Screams, cheers, and hugs rang out when the Grand Champion title was bestowed again upon Quebecois Fromagerie du Presbytère's Laliberté, an ultra creamy soft cow's milk cheese with pungent mushroom flavours. It was one of the few cheeses I remembered eating during that two-hour cheese-a-thon, and would actually buy. That is, if I could get my hands on it as sales are expected to soar after the win (Quality Cheese, one of the previous winners, saw its sales increase by 400 percent). Fromagerie du Presbytère's owner Jean Morin tells me that there are only ten employees working at the creamery, so there's a good chance the stock will be consistently sold out.
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All the cheesemakers will be going back to work tomorrow, and over the next week, the Laliberté will be popping up on local morning news shows as part of a promotional tour. But for now, the awards have been given out, and it was time for the cheesemakers to party like Havarti.