It was an auspicious day. Hoisted from the dock by ropes and men, a 7300 lb round of Ontario cheddar from Ingersoll set sail from the New York harbour toward England. It was 1866. There had been a cheese embargo during the Civil War. American cheese production had fallen dramatically. Ontario farmers in Ingersoll saw an opportunity. What better way to get noticed than to churn 35 tons of milk into a 6ft 10 inch wide, 3 ft high round, present it at the New York State Fair, and then roll it across the English countryside? Piece by piece, Ontario cheddar made its mark, and would forever put Canada on the world map of cheese. Today Oxford County in Ontario’s Southwest is still known as the Dairy Capital of Canada, and home of the great Cheese Trail.
Sinking into an ambrosial hot chocolate at Habitual Chocolate, Chocolatier Philippe Lehner shares with me his joy in ruining his customers’ taste for grocery store chocolate. “It’s not about eating the whole bar in front of the TV at night,” he tells me, “It’s about savouring each piece.” His hand-made selection of bean-to-bar chocolates that he packages on-site is the largest in Canada. All are soy, nut and gluten free. A few are even Keto-friendly. He roasts the beans, adds the cocoa butter and cane sugar, and that’s it. And yet, the flavour profiles of each bar have depth, complexity, richness and smooth mouth-feel.
In the true spirit of the Cheese Trail, Habitual’s Upper Thames bar is used in Upper Thames Brewing Company’s Dark Side Chocolate Stout. That beer is then sent to Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese for their beer soaked cheese, Dark Side of the Moo, which is then artfully presented at restaurant Six Thirty Nine.
Comfortably perched at the counter within Upper Thames Brewing, amidst a distinctly refined Canadian ambience of polished wood, we sample beer that sings for pairings. The Dark Side Stout evokes a pairing with an espresso-crusted venison loin, while the Dead Reckoning OPA, smooth, refreshing and clean, and made with all-Ontario malt and hops, would marry perfectly with a lamb burger with mint and feta. Seasonal options dot the menu. One flight of beer quenches our palates and, combined with a charcuterie board with local cheese, provides the perfect taste of place.
Off to make a charcuterie board! At Ottercreek Woodworks Inc.‘s From Tree to Table we walk through the calm of the Carolinian forest to learn about the surrounding nature while snacking on locally baked Dutch stroopwaffels and plucking leaves to steep in our tea. Drinking in our walk in the woods, we then choose from local, sustainably harvested boards to carve in the workshop. I’m partial to cherry wood. Time flies when you’re sanding, and it’s wonderfully meditative to chisel at the knots, split the bark with a vintage drawknife, sand and polish a beautiful piece of wood to all its lustre.
Perfectly timed, a cornucopia of local produce, cheese and meats is set on the most gorgeously carved boards that set our palates and imaginations whirling. We sample Gunn’s Hill’s Cabernet Merlot-soaked, cedar-aged Tipsy. Modelled after the Swiss Mutchli, its buttery notes are sealed in an essence of wine that creates quite a unique and pleasing effect. Another rich and creamy Swiss-influenced cheese is 5 Brothers, hand-crafted washed-rind cow’s milk, combining Appenzeller with Gouda. I could be happy with a brick of this.
The range of cheese in Oxford County is vast. At Mountainoak Cheese we sample from eighteen flavours of Gouda with ingredients that I never would have imagined, like celery, fenugreek, mustard, and black truffle. Each time I think I’ve decided which one is coming home with me, I fall for another. None of them are “one note.” The Chili Pepper Smoked is, on the front end, creamy and mild, but then reveals an envelopment of applewood smoke, followed by a red pepper finish.
Canada’s oldest registered independent cheese company, Bright Cheese and Butter, has maintained award-winning cheese like aged cheddar, Asiago, Colby, Monterey jack, feta and Havarti since 1874. Here we sample organic grass-fed cheddar, and the squeakiest cheese curds that are begging to be melted into poutine. What makes this cheese so rich? Whole milk. Very few dairies are still making real cheddar with it. Bright uses Swiss Alpine cultures and doesn’t skim. There’s a line up out the door for the curds, but I’m lost in a dreamy state like when I was a child and my mom would let me have a piece of cheese to tide me over before dinner.
Every cheese maker on the trail is featured at Charles Dickens Pub. Classic British fare never had it so good as this kitchen proudly serves generously portioned farm-to- table ingredients. A piping hot plate of melted Gunn’s Hill Brie, crowned with sliced strawberries and a sprinkling of almonds, is accompanied by warm fresh bread to scoop up all the gooey goodness. Chicken Pot Pie with smooth mashed potato, enlivened with Mountainoak Gouda, is so rich and sultry. Our palates are in heaven.
We walk through the process of cheese making inside the antique cheese factory at the Ingersoll Cheese & Agricultural Museum, while in the old schoolhouse we learn the stories and lifestyle of another time. By exploring the history of cheese in Ontario, we glean a better understanding of the politics around it today and the huge role that cheese plays in Canada, from our farmers to our home kitchens.
From the Cheese Playground at the museum we head to Truffle Camp at Chocolatea. Using local cream and local ingredients, small batch fresh cream truffles of such clever flavour combinations change frequently. While we admire chocolatier and tea sommelier, Cindy Walker, for all her decadent confections, today, we get to become the chocolatiers and create our own take home delectables. On an enthusiastic local recommendation, I turn the corner and step into another world. Patina’s Gifts of Art & Craft is a Bohemian enclave brimming with a beautiful selection of ceramics and blown glass by local artists, a range of hip clothes, jewellery and home décor, and a section devoted to children’s books and toys that will make me the coolest dad ever.
Oxford County is full of industrious artisans inspired by local ingredients. True to its name, Wild Comfort Body Care offers hand crafted herbal and botanical bath teas to steep into aromatic bliss; shampoo bars made from natural oils; and an assortment of serums and lotions to pamper every skin type. Have you ever heard of felted-soap? Here we get to make our own. Packing a ball of soap ends; we then choose different coloured strips of wool to pierce into the soap for a gentle exfoliant. Each blend of soaps and colours is sweet smelling and totally unique.
With its ruby volcanic stone exterior and Queen Anne Revival style architecture, Château la Motte Guest House is a rare jewel. We must pause to admire the craftsmanship of every elegantly tended accoutrement from floor to ceiling. Each historic room offers old world charm without sacrificing new world amenities. It’s a cozy step back in time, but more comfortable and polished than it ever was. Centrally located, the balcony from my room is the perfect perch from which to enjoy a glass of wine and breathe in the quiet.
The buzz in Woodstock is around Six Thirty Nine. This is the pinnacle of Ontario farm- to-table cuisine. Chef Eric Boyar works hand in glove with local farmers to present quality with wow-factor. His creativity and velvet touch are praiseworthy. Grilled focaccia is like an open jewellery box of local Planet Shrimp, smoked mussels, grilled scapes, saffron potato rouille and tomato preserve. The best arancini I’ve ever tasted comes with a perfect cornmeal crunch enveloping Smoked 5 Brothers, and accented with pickled walnuts, blue cheese aioli and smoked honey. Sweet breads are lightly fried with crab apple soy glaze. Duck breast is honey glazed and accompanied by Gouda tortellini, hazelnuts and burnt honey jus. Each dish is a work of art. We can taste every ingredient, and the confluence of all their luxurious textures.
When Thomas Ingersoll moved to Oxford County in 1793, he brought with him two cows. Before long Oxford’s Township of Norwich would be the site of Canada’s first cheese factory. An industry soon flourished that would forever define Ontario on the world stage. They say the second mouse gets the cheese, and yet, the Cheese Trail churns epicurean delights for insatiable cheese lovers at every stop along the way.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.