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The art of consumable craft at the Royal Winter Fair Cheese & Butter Competition

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Every year since 1922, The Royal has drawn Canada’s finest agricultural artisans from their fields and barns to Toronto for a celebration of regional terroir, farming and food craft. In the lee of the CN Tower and the city’s complex labyrinth of highways, crates and trailers are opened to reveal the fruits of hard work done well. Beautiful grains, livestock, cheeses, vegetables and preserves take centre stage in celebration of our national need for, and obsession with, local food.

A short walk or subway ride to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds delivers city folk into the heart of the fair where the richness and splendour of rural Canada are on display as we ease into the holiday season. The Royal is that rare place where people come together to create or renew ties to our rural landscape and the harvest rarely seen outside of the produce aisles and grocery shelves.

Of course, The Royal wouldn’t be the grand event it is without a little competition. Over its 10-day schedule, much-renowned food, livestock and equestrian events take place; not the least of which is The Royal Cheese and Butter Competition, presented by Dairy Farmers of Ontario. Each year, some of Canada’s finest cheese and butter makers submit their products to be judged on their technical and aesthetic merits. A Grand Championship win at The Royal can put small-batch, artisanal products on the map or validate long-established cheeses and butters, opening up new foodservice and consumer audiences to their products.

A few years ago, Canadian cheese experts and educators Lisa McAlpine and Deborah Levy performed an audit of the competition, returning a report with recommendations for improvements predicated on a belief that The Royal’s competition brand was worthy of elevation. At the beginning of 2018, they took on the role of Superintendents and started the task of modernizing the annual competition to increase the competition’s visibility and extend the value for winning cheese and butter makers.

The winners of this year’s competition benefitted from a unique process that paired technical and aesthetic judges with a judging panel facilitator to present, taste and judge each of the 188 cheeses, in a single day. While it was a little hectic, McAlpine is very pleased with the results. “Thornloe Cheese winning Grand Champion for their unsalted, grass-fed butter is a huge deal. First, it’s a butter from the north—and it’s pretty far north. That an unsalted butter won on its own merits—without the flavour of salt—is outstanding.” The butter is made using milk from grass-fed cows, which brings in the terroir of the Temiskaming, Ontario northern region, and people are looking to the food they eat for a connection to the land.”

Empire Cheese Co-op has been handcrafting naturally-aged cheese since 1876 in Campbellford, Ontario. Their quiet position as a local treasure is part of what McAlpine loves about their huge win at this year’s competition. “The Empire Cheese win for Dairy Farmers of Ontario Grand Champion Cheddar is a really interesting one. Their medium cheddar won grand champion, and it was a clear grand champion. The marks were quite high. They perfectly exemplify the idea of ‘the tortoise and the hare’—slow and steady wins the race. They’ve been around for a long time, using traditional methods. They’re extremely local with a devoted community following.”

McAlpine feels that The Royal is uniquely positioned to triangulate the narrative of terroir, craft and the artisans who make fine cheese and butter to the benefit of a growing number of people seeking stronger connections to the food they serve or consume. “The winning cheese in the variety cheese cow’s milk category was Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese’s 5 Brothers farmstead cheese—a handcrafted washed rind cow’s milk cheese. It had the highest points of all cow milk cheeses entered into 15 different categories. In that same category—separated by just 0.25 of a mark—was Handeck, another Gunn’s Hill cheese. What I love about Gunn’s Hill is how the story of the cheesemaker and his family is told across their products. The cheesemaker, Shep Ysselstein, is the eldest of five brothers, studied cheesemaking in the US, Canada and Switzerland, and returned home to Canada to make farmstead artisanal cheese in Oxford County, Ontario. Since opening in 2011, he’s developed a reputation for very complex, sophisticated cheeses with a lot of nuances of flavour. He earned the know-how to make mountain-style cheeses in Europe, and now uses Ontario milk to create new world cheeses that are constantly winning prizes and earning distinction.”

Long known primarily for its cheddars, Ontario cheeses were dominant across all categories. Quality Cheese in Woodbridge, Ontario won Grand Champion in the Variety Cheese – Goat, Sheep, Water Buffalo and Mixed Milk category for their Albert’s Leap Ashley goat cheese. The Grand Champion Cheddar title was bestowed upon Lindsay Bandaged Goat Cheddar from Mariposa Dairy, in Lindsay, Ontario.

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