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Photos and Text: Maureen Littlejohn

Oxford County, an hour’s drive west of Toronto is cheese heaven. They even have a designated trail dedicated to this much-loved dairy product. Dotted with amazing cheese producers, the trail also features museums, markets, an art gallery and restaurants.

I eat cheese on a daily basis and the bin in our fridge was getting low, so my husband and I decided to hit the trail and load up. To get our bearings, plus a sense of the area’s history, our first stop was in the heart of Ontario cheese country at the Ingersoll museum.

“There were around 100 cheese factories in the area at one time,” curator Scott Gillies told me. A fountain of information, he told us about an amazing promotional campaign that is still talked about today. The Mammoth Cheese was 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, N.Y., by horse and cart, before heading to England by ship 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.”

Now it was time to set out for some serious cheese tasting. At Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese we sampled award-winning Swiss-style cheese produced by Shep Ysselstein and Colleen Bator. The plant had 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 included Handeck, dry, hard and mild with a waft of nuttiness; 5 Brothers, soft, mild and much like Gouda; and Oxford’s Harvest that was mild and buttery. I was especially intrigued with Tipsy, an Oxford Harvest variety that had been soaked in Palatine Hills cabernet merlot for several days. We were there on a Saturday, but were told if we wanted fresh curds, Friday was the day. “The line up starts early!” said Laura, the manager, who took us on a tour to view the 10,000 cheese wheel inventory. Clomping through the pristine plant, wearing hair and shoe coverings, we saw the entire cheese making process, starting with raw milk, addition of rennet, formation of curds, brine wash and final pressing into wheel molds. You don’t have to go to the production facility to procure this luscious cheese (although a trip there is worth it). Laura informed us that Gunn’s Hill is available at Sobey’s and Loblaw’s.

Bright Cheese & Butter, was about a ½ hour outside of Woodstock. A local dairy farmer cooperative established in 1874, the small shop had its signature cheddar on sale and also allowed visitors do to do a positive or negative test taste on mild, medium and old versions. Rich and flavourful, it was all positive. Reading up on the operation, I learned that at the turn of the 20th century, cedar was Canada’s second largest export and there were 1,242 cheddar factories in Ontario. Bright Cheese is the oldest still in operation and remains in its original location.

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. My favourite was Farmstead Gold, an international award-winner with a hint of caramel. 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. Truly cow-to-table production. Looking over his calm herd, van Bergejik confided, “I love these black and white animals.”

Where to Eat

SixThirtyNine, Woodstock. Peeking into the open kitchen, I had a brief chat with chef Eric Boyar who told me this family run establishment had been operating for 12 years. “We source produce and meat locally, and many greens come from my brother’s farm,” he told me. My lunch started with silky smooth apple celery-rood soup and my main was roasted squash, kale, chickpea and couscous salad on a bed of sheep’s milk tatziki. Steve had an overflowing sandwich of melt-in-his mouth sliced striploin steak on a home baked bun. Boyar told us the meat was aged 45 days. “The best I’ve ever tasted,” said Steve. sixthirtynine.com

Charles Dickens Pub, Woodstock. A fun, British-style pub with craft-brewed pints and locally sourced fare. On our visit there was a whole special menu of grilled cheese sandwiches. I ordered one with a mixture of Gunn’s Hill products mixed with caramelized onions. Delicious! charlesdickenspub.com

Where to Stay

Elm Hurst Inn & Spa, Ingersoll. This 1872 mansion formerly belonging to the Mammoth Cheese producer was exquisite. Murals wrapped around the walls on the first floor and guest rooms on the upper stories were spacious and modern. The dining room is open to guests and the public. My filet mignon was juicy and top quality. Steve’s roast beef was enough for two meals. elmhurstinn.com

Where to Shop

Jakeman’s Maple Products, Beachville. This internationally known maple syrup producer 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. jakemansmapleproducts.com

Leaping Deer Adventure Farm, Ingersoll. 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,” owner Mrs. B told me.

Cindy Chocolatea
Cindy Chocolatea

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. leapingdeer.com 

Chocolatea, Ingersoll. Owner Cindy Walker was full of smiles as we entered the little tea and chocolate 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.

Culture

Woodstock Art Gallery, Woodstock. 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 150 pieces of Carlyle’s work that are rotated regularly. woodstockartgallery.ca

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Maureen LittleJohn

Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin’s executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine’s readers.