Cheese and wine are at the heart of Canada’s food revolution. Find the perfect pairing at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto
Seven middle-aged men in suits and ties stand around a small butcher block in a glass-walled enclosure in the center of the dining room at TOCA, the restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto. Surrounded by hand-cut granite shelves and beams of Canadian beechwood, in an environment of exactly specified temperature and 50 percent humidity, they squint, shake their heads, and lean over a creamy-white slab veined with deep blue. Tom Brodi, TOCA’s baby-faced chef, grins at the audience gathered in his new $250,000 cheese cave. He cuts a taste for each skeptic. They lean back, sniff, and then one by one, they trust, they commit — seven faces changing, warming into youthful, beaming pleasure.
Brodi never set out to be an evangelist for Canadian cheese. The 36-year-old Toronto native learned how to make cheddar at a local dairy, sure, but much in the same way he first learned how to slaughter a pig on a cousin’s nearby farm when he was a kid. If it’s local, it’s Brodi’s passion — not a major ingredient on the menu fails to list its proud Canadian provenance. And these days, what’s happening in the land of the maple leaf, from Québec to British Columbia, is a nascent burst of artisanal cheese-making. “Five years ago there were maybe 500 good Canadian cheeses,” Brodi says, “but now there are two thousand,” some of which make up the 50 varietals showcased and savored in TOCA’s cave, and complemented by an equally locally sourced wine selection.
Before lunch service, Brodi speeds seatbelt-less in a Lululemon zip-up through the West End of Toronto in his spanking-new Mercedes to the Cheese Boutique, a gourmand’s palace tucked away on a quiet residential block. He’s dropping in on Afrim Pristine, his savant de fromage. Pristine is the 30-year-old scion of the half-Turkish, half-Italian family that has been running this shop for more than four decades. He and Brodi are tight — they go back almost a decade, to when they were mere babes in the Toronto foodie wilderness; Brodi cooked for Pristine’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Pristine is the chief consultant on the cheese cave, dropping in a few times a week and gathering Canada’s moldy best for its granite shelves.
After a hug and a shoulder bump, Pristine leads Brodi through a glass door that says “Smell Sensitive Area” into the boutique’s own cheese cave. When Pristine isn’t working the cheese counter, he’s roaming the country’s dairies. That’s how he ends up with Ruth Clemson’s Monteforte Fleur de Marquis — a fresh snow-white sheep’s-milk cheese, crusted in a winter’s forest of rosemary and juniper berries, subtly flecked with chilies. “No one has ever had this cheese before,” says Brodi, his eyes flashing with excitement, “and I get to put it on the menu tonight.”
A decade ago, Pristine didn’t have a single Canadian cheese in the store; now he stocks about 50 percent local product. The newness of the industry, and the cheeses themselves, is part of the thrill of transplanting an ancient industry to relatively virgin pastures. “Italian and French cheese makers are the best in the world, no doubt, but it has plateaued there — there’s nothing new coming out of it; you’ll find the same recipes they’ve been using for 400 years,” Pristine says, wrapping a tangy Ontario Red Leicester for a soufflé Brodi is planning.
Case in point: a local burrata that Pristine worked with the cheese maker to concoct. It’s perfectly light and creamy, without the water that so often drips forth. (Even his Italian mother — who sashays by Brodi, kissing him on both cheeks — approves.) “Here we’re young, we’re excited, we’re blending different techniques,” Pristine says. That can extend from the dairy to the kitchen. For example, Brodi uses a hard Gouda from Thunder Bay — a caramel, crystalline wonder — where other chefs would shave in some Italian parmesan. “This is Canada’s finest cheese,” says Pristine, “and he’s grating it on prosciutto.”
But perhaps the cheese that best tells the story of the TOCA ethic — young, innovative and local — is the Wiser’s whiskey cheddar. Pristine sources 10-year-old cheddar from a local farm, which he cryovacs into a bag filled with Wiser’s whiskey from Prescott, Ontario, and maple syrup tapped by the family of the TOCA cheese cave architect. The cheese takes on a sweet, pungent tang, while whiskey and maple blend and infuse with rich cheddar, forming a sauce for each orange chunk. Back at his own cheese cave, Brodi pours the liquid into a tiny ramekin, pops a dense morsel in his mouth and downs the shot of “love juice,” as he calls it, with a frat boy’s gusto writ gustatory.
Of course, “love juice” isn’t the customary spirit to imbibe with a fine cheese. If to you Canadian wine is the currant liquor that got Anne of Green Gables in big trouble, think again. Toronto shares a latitude with Burgundy, and fittingly, traffics in pinots, chardonnays and rieslings. As in the moldy arts, the vintner business here is still a young one. TOCA proudly offers verticals on its wine list — arranged by locale, of course, with Canada first — but they stretch back only a decade. Furthermore, a particularly cool year can easily sully a vintage; Napa this is not. But there are some delicious options in the TOCA cellar, selected, fittingly, by wine director Taylor Thompson. And because these wines are rarely available outside the provinces — production is still too new and limited for much export — in Toronto, you’re in for a local treat.
Thompson, a 29-year-old in a sharp black suit (anywhere else we might joke that he’s younger than the bottles he recommends), contends that TOCA’s wine list boasts more Canadian offerings than any other, plus all are organic and sustainable. In his glass-walled cellar just across the dining room, an elegant sister to the cheese cave, he proudly uncorks a Henry of Pelham 2007 Baco Noir and explains that it’s made with a strain of grapes that were grown in France for Armagnac, outlawed by the regional powers there, and somehow found their way to Canadian soil, where it has become a local treasure.
“California has their zin, Loire’s got sauvignon blanc, and Niagara has baco noir,” he says, quaffing a tannic, spicy sip. Henry of Pelham is one of the nation’s strongest labels, and, founded in the early ’80s, a grandfather of the bunch, figuring prominently on the TOCA list. Indeed, the vintners were just at the restaurant this morning, chatting and sipping with the staff. Their sparkling Cuvée Catherine Rosé is a standout: zesty and fruity, but not too saucy (this is humble Canada, after all).
Sparkling whites are equally exciting on the palate, hailing from Prince Edward County, where the climate nearly matches the Champagne region. The fruit slowly ripens here, which is what you want for grapes that will pass through a second fermentation in the bottle, allowing winemakers to precisely control when they pick fruit off the vine. And the cool temperatures impart acidity to the grapes, “so the wines are really alive,” Thompson explains, “which means we never add sugar or acidify.”
Rieslings, like a 2009 Cave Spring Dolomite, are lively, bursting with tart apple, mountain-spring fresh — almost more Grüner-like than some of their thicker, sweeter brethren. Cave Spring also makes the house TOCA red, a merlot blend that starts with cherry, then goes smoky, and finishes with a peaty flavor more Talisker than Kendall Jackson, earthy as this vast land. With a slice of pungent, nutty Québec vegetable-ash cheese, a smear of raw local honey … before you know it, the bottle is empty, the rind is gone, and you’re calling for a shot of love juice for dessert, with extra cheese. —By Lauren Sandler