My husband Steve calls me a mouse. Why? I love cheese! Oxford County, an hour’s drive west of Toronto is cheese heaven and they even have a designated trail dedicated to this amazing dairy product. Dotted with amazing cheese producers, the trail also features museums, markets, an art gallery and restaurants.
Picking up the official Cheese Trail map in Woodstock, we started off with lunch at Six Thirty Nine. Chef Eric Boyar helms the kitchen at this family run establishment which has been operating for 12 years. Produce and meats are sourced locally, and many greens come from Boyar’s brother’s farm. We started with a silky smooth apple celery-rood soup. I opted for a roasted squash, kale, chickpea and couscous salad on a bed of sheep’s milk tatziki. Steve had an overflowing sandwich of melt-in-your mouth sliced striploin steak on a home baked bun. Aged for 45 days, the meat was “The best I’ve ever tasted,” said Steve.
Next was Jakeman’s, an internationally known maple syrup producer that has been in operation for 140 years. Inside the quaint country store, I spied rows of the regular amber liquid, as well as an icewine maple syrup. After sampling some of this sweet gold, we headed across the road and wandered along a lovely little path through Trillium Woods Provincial Park. Lucky for us, the provincial flowers were in bloom. Heavenly.
Not far off was Leaping Deer Adventure Farm. Set up for families, kids can pet goats and play on an assortment of outdoor structures. We headed for the bakery and craft shop. Handmade birdhouses and John Deere toys were the dominate merchandise. Apple pie bread grilled cheese was on the menu, as were maple butter tarts. “We’re competing in the butter tart completion next weekend,” Julie Budd, who owns the farm with her husband Don, told me. I took a bite of the gooey concoction and immediately wanted to swoon. Buttery, sweet with a hint of maple, it was definitely a winner.
To get a sense of the county’s history, we stopped into the Ingersoll museum. Charles Ingersoll was born in Massachusetts in 1791. His family moved to Upper Canada in 1795 and he served as lieutenant during the War of 1812. His sister Laura was regaled for her bravery during the war when she alerted British forces of an impending American attack. She married loyalist James Secord and on the centennial of her walk a candy company launched using her name, Laura Secord Chocolates. Charles helped found the town of Ingersoll and went into business with his brother James. They owned a sawmill, gristmill, potash plant, general store and distillery. Charles served as postmaster and was an elected member of parliament for Oxford County in 1824 and 1830.
I found the history of this little town fascinating. A woodworker named John C. Little (1887-1971) made the town famous with his custom carved hearses. Douglas C. Carr spent 1937-39 riding around the world on a bicycle. Abolitionist John Brown led an anti-slavery rally at the town’s Wesleyan Methodist Church where ex-slaves found refuge. One of North America’s most famous evangelist preachers, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), was born in the nearby village of Salford. The most important thing I learned about, however, was cheese.
“There were around 100 cheese factories in the area at one time,” curator Scott Gillies told me. Filled with stories of the area, he told me about the Mammoth Cheese. Produced as a marketing ploy by local cheese factory owner James Harris in 1866, the 7,300 lb. wheel of cheese made its way to the New York State Fair in Saratoga, NY. Before being shipped to England where it was sold in small pieces. “It took 35 tons of milk to make and was seven feet in diameter,” explained Gillies. The idea was to build a market in Great Britain since dairies there were unable to keep up with the demand. It worked. “Harris came back with a fistful of orders and after that 300,000 boxes of Oxford cheese were shipped to Great Britain yearly.”
After all that cheese, it was time for tea and chocolate at Chocolatea. Owner Cindy Walker was full of smiles as we entered the little shop. “I create everything by hand, in small batches,” she explained. Her husband Steve is a tea sommelier and tins of loose leaves lined the walls. Vanilla cream was on the boil and Cindy graciously poured us samples to taste. Smooth and aromatic, just the one sip put me into a meditative state. We walked out with a box of caramel pecan clusters (Turtles on steroids) and a box of exquisitely crafted chocolates that looked like jewels.
A tad tired from our travels, it was time to check into the Elm Hurst Inn & Spa. The Mammoth Cheese owner’s former home, it was magnificent. Hand-painted murals wrapped around rooms on the first level, where the restaurant was located. My filet mignon was juicy and top quality. Steve’s roast beef was enough for two meals.
The next day we set out for some serious cheese tasting. First stop was Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. Grand Prix winning Swiss-style cheese is produced here by Shep Ysselstein and Colleen Bator. The plant has been operating for six years and in 2014 Ysselstein was presented with a BDC Young Entrepreneur award. The unique cheeses produced at Gunn’s Hill include Handeck, 5 Brothers, and Oxford’s Harvest other cheeses were soaked in wine and beer. Friday is fresh curd day and we were told the line up starts early. Laura, the manager, took us on a tour (10,000 cheese inventory!) and we viewed the entire cheese making process, from raw milk, addition of rennet, curds, brine wash and finally pressing into wheel molds. Their cheese are available in Sobey’s and Loblaw’s, so I will be on the look out.
Time to get some culture, of the than cheesy sort so we headed to the Woodstock Art Gallery. What a wonderful surprise! I loved the fabulous, almost impressionistic paintings by Florence Carlyle (1864-1923). One piece, called Tiff showing a young woman and man after an argument, was on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario. A gorgeous interpretive piece, this showed at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. Dee Logan, our guide, told us the gallery has 1500 pieces of art that are rotated regularly.
Cheese time again. The Charles Dickens pub had a whole special menu of grilled cheese sandwiches. I ordered one with a mixture of Gunn’s Hill products mixed with caramelized onions. Delicious!
Then we drove to Bright Cheese & Butter, about a ½ hour side of town. A local dairy farmer cooperative, the small shop had its signature cheddar on sale and also allowed visitors to do a taste test, accompanied by a sheet of paper with boxes for negative and positive reactions. What was negative about Bright’s products? Nadda.
Down the road, Mountainoak Cheese specialized in gouda and produced 18 flavours of the famous Dutch-style cheese including cumin and cloves, wild nettle and black truffle. Owner Adam van Bergeijk , formerly a cheese maker in Holland, moved to Canada in 1996. Meeting us at the front office, he kindly paraded us through his barn of 225 milking cows. I had never seen robotic milking before. The cows went of their own volition to a small cage, attracted by special feed as well as relief for their full udders. The robot sprayed the teats clean, then clamped on, tugging and milking. The resulting milk went directly into tubes leading to a sterile tank. Wow. Looking over his calm herd, van Bergejik confided, “I love these black and white animals.”
Me too. I love cheese. What else can I say?
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