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Gurth Pretty's Guide to Canadian Cheese

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By Malcolm Jolley

The Definitive Guide to Canadian Artisanal and Fine Cheese was greeted with relieved cries of "Finally!" when it was published a few months ago. Chef Gurth Pretty, the guides author and Canada's new expert on our burgeoning cheese scene spoke with Gremolata about writing the book and enjoying good cheese.

Gremolata: Why the book?

Gurth Pretty: Three years ago I was promoting culinary tourism with Canadian Tourism Commission and we were in a fine food store specialising in regional products in Montréal when I discovered the Repertoire des fromages du Québec. I thought, 'Wow! C'est fantastique! Finally, I'll be able to know about all the delicious cheeses of Quebec.' So I bought it right away, looking forward to discovering new cheeses. But when I walked out the door wit it I thought, 'I wonder if this book has been translated into English and I wonder if there's one for all the cheeses of Canada.'

So I started doing some research, reading through all the books on cheese I could find, and I found that in the international books Canada would be lucky to get a few pages or even just a few entries: Cheddar and Oka. Great cheeses, but there's a lot more out there than that.

Gremolata: So how where did you start?

Gurth Pretty: Well, I came across a few resources, for single milk type cheeses: just cow, or goat or sheep. There were a few provincial ones, too. But really I just used whatever I could, like Toronto Life. James Chatto had a an article on Eigensinn Farm and it said they used a local cheese called Creemore, so I emailed him and that's how I found out about Milky Way Farm.

Gremolata: There are hundreds of producers in this book, though. How did you track them all down?

Gurth Pretty: I really wanted to be inclusive and get them all. It's funny, some folks said, "OK, this all great but how much is it going to cost us?

And I said, "Nothing."

"What do you mean nothing? How are you making money from this?"

"By selling copies of the book."

Now, I did have a stipulation that when the book came out they'd send me two kilograms of cheese that I could use at events to promote the book. You know, when you go on TV you need cheese!

Now, some cheese makers still didn't want to participate. And that's OK, it's up to them. I still mention them though. Others got back to me to late, but they're all there.

The only real criteria was that they make cheese to sell. There's a group of Trappist monks who make cheese in Saskatchewan, but it's all for their own consumption.

Anyway, there's a great renaissance going on in Canadian cheese. I know of five new producers coming from Ontario this year alone.

Gremolata: How new is all this? Could you have written this book 10 years ago?

Gurth Pretty: Yes, but there wouldn't have been as many. The early 1990's really saw the first wave of new cheese makers - those that has burnt out of the corporate rat race and went back to the land. But there's been many since then. There may also have been established makers who are no longer with us.

Gremolata: How come out of 300 odd pages Québec gets 150?

Gurth Pretty: [Laughs] Two reasons. First reason: Quebecers have a greater love and appreciation of cheese. Second reason: milk quota and politics. That's something to talk to The Dairy Farmers of Canada about. That's something I don't understand too much. I find it confusing.

Gremolata: Just to touch on regulation, a lot of these cheeses I couldn't get in here in Toronto.

Gurth Pretty: One of the reasons I list all of these small producers form all over the country is so that it gives another reason to go to that region and discover more about the cheese. I provide the information as to where you can buy the cheese as well as which restaurants use the cheese on their menu and also I'll give some travel suggestions so you can spend a few days in the region.

Gremolata: as well as the regional differences there's also the heritage of the cheese makers. I'm thinking of all the different Goudas.

Gurth Pretty: Oh yes, I think of travelling across the country and meeting Belgian, Swiss, French, British cheese makers. Or multi-generational Canadian, including French-Canadian, of course. And East-Indian! There makers making paneer for the Canadian East-Indian communities.

Gremolata: That's pretty cool. Isn't there also a Syrian maker?

Gurth Pretty: That's right. There's Marie Kadé originally from Syria, now outside of Montréal who's making Middle Eastern styles of cheeses. And on the other side of the Ontario border is Peter Skotidas who's got three thousand goats for making feta for the Greek community. So where ever there's a demand...

Gremolata: Did anything surprise you?

Gurth Pretty: I was surprised by the creativity of the makers and how they would incorporate local flavours into their cheese. In Nova Scotia, Foxhill introduces blueberries and cranberries onto their Cheddar for Christmas. Or maple liqueur washed cheese in Quebec. In Ontario Montforte is making a cheese washed with Niagara red wine. So you find this all across the country.

People have asked me which region makes the best cheese, but you can't compare them how can you compare a Salt Spring Island cheese to a cheese from PEI? Different growing conditions, different things the animals are grazing on. The cheese makers are different... There's no comparison.

Gremolata: Can you tell where a cheese is from by tasting it?

Gurth Pretty: Well you can sometimes see it in the packaging. Sometimes in the cheese, but more often in the packaging. The best example of that would be David Wood on Salt Spring Island. He used to own a specialty food shop in Toronto and he has an eye for marketing. So here he is making this beautiful, delicious Chevre cheese and he has them garnished with flower petals, or roasted garlic, or white truffles. The packaging itself is nothing fancy, just clear plastic, but you just see the cheese and the truffles and it's so simple it's beautiful.

Gremolata: He's quite well known.

Gurth Pretty: I was just in Vancouver and his cheese is very popular. I wish we could get them here, but then I don't.

Gremolata: Why not?

Gurth Pretty: I'm happy we don't because if we got all the cheeses form all the regions of the country we couldn't go visit the other regions to discover them! Why go to Ganges Farmers Market on Salt Spring Island if you can get all the cheeses made on the island in Toronto? You got to get out there and see and taste what makes Canada great!

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