Recently, we took a crew of Feast On chefs on a tasty road trip to meet some of Oxford County’s amazing cheese producers. After an epic breakfast sandwich from the folks at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market, we headed down south (south west, to be specific) to visit the historic Dairy Capital of Ontario. That would be Oxford County, which produces over 286,000,000 litres of milk each year – the most in Ontario!
In the 1800’s, Oxford County more than lived up to its title with over 98 cheese factories in the region. While that number has dwindled across the province, we’re thrilled to see a resurgence in artisanal dairies. In Oxford County alone, three new dairies have opened in the last five years. Ontario cheese is making a comeback and we couldn’t be more excited.
In a nod to Oxford County’s history, it was fitting that our first stop on the Feast On tour was Bright Cheese & Butter – the oldest continually running dairy co-op in the province. Bright’s has been in business since 1874 and you can bet they know a thing or two about making awesome cheese. After donning the requisite hair net, booties and lab coats (we ride in style), our Feast On chefs took a tour of the facility and learned how Bright is still innovating after all these years. They’ve recently rebranded their packaging and have struck up a partnership with one of our favourite cheese producers, Monforte Dairy, to produce a delicious cow’s milk cheddar called Providence. We’re mildly addicted to this cheese so you can imagine our delight when Stefan and the Bright staff passed out an overly generous box brimming with some seriously insane swag – a huge selection of their products (including the award-winning Asiago and the afore-mentioned Providence) to each of our Feast On chefs.
After having a serious *start the car!* moment with our boxes of cheese, we headed down the road to Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. There, celebrated cheesemaker Shep Ysselstein took our chefs on a tour of the Gunn’s Hill aging room, where wheels of their 5 Brothers and Handeck cheeses are painstakingly hand-washed in a salt water solution every three days by the staff. There were plenty of questions from our chefs, including several refrains of “how can I get this in my restaurant?!”. Shep had great answers but perhaps even better – cooler bags full of cheese to give each of our guests. No guaranteed they all made it home though…
There’s a true sense of family present at Gunn’s Hill – 100% of the milk for their cheeses come from the Holsteins on Shep’s parents’ farm just down the road. They even sell “family cheese” in the retail shop (we loved hearing how that name came about). We’re starting to see the Gunn’s Hill name pop up on more menus and it’s no wonder – their creamy, Swiss-style cheeses (Shep trained in Switzerland and later with a Swiss cheesemaker back in North America) are made with such care and attention to the craft that they’re hard to resist.
Just in case our Feast On chefs needed any menu inspiration, our next stop was SixThirtyNine in Woodstock, where Chef Eric Boyar has been using the bounty from his County for over a decade. No sad sandwiches for our Feast On chefs here – Eric put on a master class of showcasing cheese on the table. That included his legendary pulled pork croquettes (find the recipe here!), duck confit soup and leek ash gnocchi made with Oxford Harvest cheese from Gunn’s Hill, served with thin rounds of parsnip, a bright parsley sauce and garnished with more Oxford Harvest and sorrel. Over lunch, our chefs chatted excitedly with one another about their favourite discoveries of the day and discussed what needs to change when it comes to local food distribution to put more of these cheeses front and centre.
Of course, it didn’t end there – this is a Feast On tour after all – we go all out. The last stop was the Woodstock Art Gallery. On the third floor, our chefs were treated to a showcase of Oxford County – from wild nettle gouda samples at Mountainoak Cheese‘s table to fiery grilled cheese sandwiches and squeaky grilled paneer from Local Dairy. Of course, it takes more than curds to build a great cheese board, so Jakeman’s Maple Syrup, Oxford Honey and Habitual Chocolate were also on hand to compliment the cheesemaker’s offerings. Our chefs even went home with a beautiful hand-carved board from Otter Creek, a local woodworking company.
Yes, we talk about the Feast On program here at OCTA a lot. But please forgive us – we’re just so proud to be able to offer experiences and opportunities that allow our chefs to strike up and strengthen their connections to Ontario growers and producers. Those connections become even more important when it comes back to the kitchen and a chef is deciding where to source their ingredients from. Chances are they’re more inclined to opt for the ingredients that they know the most about – they’ve met the producer, they know how their animals are raised and they are confident in their farming practices.
Sourcing locally can often mean paying more and it isn’t always the most convenient option, but by making these choices, our Feast On chefs are building demand and appreciation for local food. Since launching the program in 2014, our Feast On designees have collectively reported spending over $14M on Ontario food. How’s that for purchasing power?! *insert flexed biceps emoji here*
The Oxford County Cheese Tour was a chance not only for our chefs to meet (cheese)makers they already work with, it was an opportunity to fall in love with some new products and be inspired to explore new ways of showcasing them on their menus. We can’t wait to see what they come up with!
Special thanks to Tourism Oxford, Ontario’s Southwest and their partners for collaborating with OCTA to offer this tour. Not a Feast On chef? You’ll be happy to know the Oxford County Cheese Trail is officially open to the public. All together now, say…CHEESE!