As a culinary crusader from northeastern Ontario, I’m driven to get more local on the table. Armed with my experience as a foodservice key account manager, food stylist and event food curator, I set out to explore a few Ontario cheeses and their makers to offer best bets and a few insider tips for turning up a varied-cost charcuterie experience for fellow restaurateurs, chefs and buyers who face real-world challenges in the local and artisan supply chain.
Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver have all become culinary destinations, and it’s in large part because the independent foodservice sector is turning its tables toward local sourcing and taking the leap to celebrate regional farm-to-table bounty. The charcuterie board is a reinvigorated trend that offers a unique tableau of regional food craft that features savoury cheeses at its core.
Regional offerings from fine cheeses to regal cheddars are bringing that experience to life when paired with cured meats, jerky, kielbasa, fresh fruits and pickled or grilled vegetables. Luckily, we’re also blessed with a robust preserving culture in Canada, which makes charcuterie curation not only simpler but creative. You can make house pickles or jellies—and hats off to you for it—but you also have Toronto greats like Manning Canning, Stasis Preserves and others ready to pluck from your local farmer’s market. We’re armed with world-class charcuterie artisans like Mario Pingue at Niagara Food Specialties, Chef Paganelli of Speducci Mercatto and northern Ontario’s Bay Meats Butcher Shop (owned and operated by a Finnish family offering nitrate-free jerky from Thunder Bay).
“I’m putting it out there—Ontario has arrived.” – Pamela Hamel
Crafting your unique Ontario cheese selection can run from as high as $100 to as low as $10 per board, without sacrificing quality or creativity. You can craft to your customer needs based on price point, style, terroir or even more nuanced charcuterie preferences—some groups may favour less meat and more crudité and cheese, or vice versa. Grazing is one of the big features of charcuterie, which is designed for lingering, sipping and sharing—curate for your guests and they’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness and attention to detail.
In my many years of catering, I’ve explored this high-to-low range, from inventing the single-serve “charcuterie cone,” which is ideal for mass crowds and features flavoured cheese curds paired with a pickle and pepperette, all the way up to 50-foot installations for gatherings of a thousand. As a devoted locavore, there are a few challenges when purchasing in bulk formats, such as buying full wheels that can be near impossible to cut into smaller portions!
For smaller establishments, larger wheels can be cumbersome to handle and care for properly. Ontario cheesemakers have become more innovative, and few now offer convenient cater packs. These small pack varieties reduce your inventory cost and can be replenished with each week’s order. I’ve also found cheesemakers to be very accommodating with pre-cut portions and direct shipping if you don’t have access to a distributor.
I’m deeply driven by aesthetics. Cheese is sexy and sensory; we eat with our eyes first. That’s why cheeses should be chosen not only for flavour and texture but also their visual attraction and aroma.
Take Devil’s Rock, the blue cheese by Thornloe Cheese in Temiskaming, Ont. It’s named after the iconic cliff made famous in the Hardy Boys series, and the shape of the cheese is a grand depiction of northeastern Ontario’s inimitable landscape and terroir. The cheese is easily cut into a butterfly fashion or quartered to use on several portioned boards. It is visually striking and bears a great story.
Then there’s the family of beer and wine-washed rinds, rubs and infused cheeses, which are plentiful in Ontario. Let’s start with what I refer to as speckle-body cheeses, which are infused with herbs like the assortment at Mountain Oak from New Hamburg, Ont. Try nettle, celery, black pepper or fenugreek cut into spears or the marbled caramelized onion cheddar from Pine River Cheese and Butter Co-op in Kincardine, Ont.—both make a striking visual impact.
Washed rinds are fantastic too, such as Gunn’s Hill’s Handeck, 5 Brothers or Tipsy, which is soaked in Palatine Hills Cabernet Merlot. Tipsy has a striking aesthetic and crafted taste by the Oxford County, Ont., artisan cheese maker.
Creating a signature style is as unique as our Canadian history and landscape and is integral to the overall customer experience. Tell your charcuterie terroir story; make your muse your region or theme and don’t be shy to play it up with a local harvested board. On this mission, I went to Indie Alehouse in Toronto’s Junction Triangle, my local favourite, where they knocked it out of the park with a honeyed hop syrup paired with World Champion Lankaaster, made by Glengarry Fine Cheese; it is named for the town Lancaster, Ont., in which this Dutch-origin cheese is finely crafted.
Single-cheese charcuterie is one of my go-to platters. They’re easiest to price, and the focus on one cheese provides an anchor to the board curation. Try the burrata from Quality Cheese in Vaughan, Ont. in a serving for two along with a cured meat, seasonal fruits from the Niagara basket or wintery-roasted hothouse tomatoes with salty nuts, crusty bread and a garnish of basil. This fusion of fresh with old-school basics delivers Italy to the palette—the kind of experience you want to deliver.
Ontario cheeses always measure up with variety, taste and authenticity, when you take on the mission of sourcing them. Simple staples, such as flavoured curds from Thornloe Cheese, Ivanhoe or Balderson aged cheddars or Sabana’s Latin Queso Fresco served with roasted peppers and chorizo, go the mile across a unique menu. And let’s celebrate an Ontario twist on Swiss Appenzellers and Dutch Goudas, from Mountainoak Cheese and Thunder Oak Cheese Farm’s aged varieties. Not to be overlooked is the legendary Niagara Gold by Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station, Ont., and the northern Ontario newcomer The Opasatika, a French Tomme from Fromagerie Kapuskoise in Kapuskasing.
In every province of this great country, your local cheesemakers are the foundation of the charcuterie board. A few Canadian favourites of mine that must be mentioned are Louis D’Or crafted by Fromagerie du Presbytère in Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick, Que., and Castle Blue made by The Farm House Natural Cheeses in Fraser Valley, BC.
As I said, we eat with our eyes first and our noses second. Be sure to try the aromatic washed rind of Grand Trunk from Stonetown Artisan Cheese in St. Marys, Ont. Washed rinds are becoming more popular with the proliferation of craft breweries and cideries. I’m anticipating there are a few new and creative washed-rind cheeses in the making that won’t be released until the aging is complete.
Charcuterie has evolved over the last 10 years, and it’s a trend that’s on the rise due to its versatility, and expressiveness. Buying local reduces your carbon footprint, and once your basic charcuterie template is set for the season, anyone working back or front of house can whip one out, which makes it a labour saver too! My recommendation? Put charcuterie on your menu and go the mile with local Ontario cheese!
A sustainable move for your menu…
While we chefs, caterers and restaurateurs are often the first to know about new and exciting local offerings, we often struggle to get our hands on the goods. Should we try to buy direct or get local listings from our distributor sales representative?
Sourcing local cheeses, meats and preserves for charcuterie is a home run on quality, variety and sustainability. While sourcing closest to home demonstrates your commitment to many types of local farming, it also strengthens local economies and helps raise the Ontario bar on cheese and local food craft. Demand for local cheeses, meats and agri-foods is ultimately demand for quality and encourages all processors and producers to strive for perfection.
Be it the Atlantic or Pacific coast or smack in the middle like Ontario, the pitfalls of local sourcing matched with labour struggles makes a local menu challenging, which is why the partnership between Restaurants Canada and Dairy Farmers of Ontario is so important. Although we’ve made tremendous progress with our broadline distributors, accessing and perception of local remains a challenge for everyone in the chain.
We’re about 10 years into this trend, and we’re seeing no signs of it coming to an end. I foresee the popularity of charcuterie growing beyond what it is today. It’s a solution to labour costs and shortages—there’s no cooking. Portion out, pair, present and offer a pour to go with it.
Necessity is the mother of invention: The Charcuterie Cone
This version of the charcuterie cone is tried and true and pairs ideally with weddings, craft beer festivals and anywhere you need to serve up the masses. The only challenge I’ve encountered was the sales pitch: “It’s your granny’s old-school cheese and pickles gone a new way!” I realize I’ve dumbed this down to the point of “ultimate charcuterie basics,” and I’m fine with that. It’s always been about delivering a cheese curd experience. And it works.
About Pamela Hamel, Foods by Nature
Pamela likes to say she’s “comfort food in a dress” with a fierce northern spirit, paired with a pragmatic approach to the food business. Pamela brings a deeply held commitment to sustainability, sharpened while working with marginalized communities and learning the craft of wild harvesting. Pamela laddered her way up from coordinating community gardens to executive director roles in the hospitality sector, and today she’s an independent blogger, agri-food brand manager and Torontonian pursuing big markets for northern Ontario food and travel trade. A native to the region of Temiskaming, Pamela shares her time between north and south and brings a unique perspective on both urban and rural food sourcing to the foodservice sector.