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In the heart of Niagara’s wine country, there is a uniquely “of the peninsula” destination for those seeking a local cheese to complement their grape-based bounty: Upper Canada Cheese Company, an artisanal cheesemaker with a boutique located in Jordan Station.
While my personal definition of local spans “anywhere in Canada,” this creamery is on a whole different hyper-local tier.
Their milk, which makes their cheeses unique in the region, is sourced from a rare herd of Guernsey cows raised on the Niagara Escarpment, less than a 30-minute drive away. In the cheese world, Guernsey milk is prized for its rich flavour; it’s also high in fat, beta-carotene, and a protein called A2 that makes it easier on digestive systems. As a lifelong novelty seeker and denier of my lactose intolerance, my curiosity and appetite were piqued.
The Guernsey, I learned just before writing this, is a breed of dairy cattle that hails from the eponymous island in the English Channel. Unlike the black and white dairy cows that usually come to mind, their markings are patches of white and shades of brown that fall between terracotta and tan. They’re doe-eyed and beautiful. One even makes an appearance in the Upper Canada Cheese logo, sporting a flower hat and fluttery eyelashes.
Although the cheese alone is more than worth the trip, the boutique has something to offer any epicurean. Its shelves are lined tightly with gourmet products from the region, from honeys and jams to fresh bagels and handcrafted charcuterie boards. I found myself, arms full of cheese, designing hypothetical gift baskets for friends.
The irony, of course, is that the cheeses did not need to be paired with anything at all. Once home, I made myself a cheese board consisting of just cheese – with a bottle of lactase enzyme supplements at the ready, just in case.
The first I tried was one that I’d previously heard about, an award-winning semi-soft cheese called Niagara Gold, created using Trappist monk cheese-making methods. The cheese is washed in brine every week for five months, then returned to the ageing room. It reminded me of a Dutch gouda, with a full-bodied nuttiness that was both creamy and sweet. What struck me was a pronounced butter note – more specifically, the golden aromatics of movie theatre popcorn butter. It put the rarity and specialness of Guernsey-milk cheese into perspective. I shaved paper-thin pieces off with a cheese slicer, and let them melt on my tongue.
Heritage Cheddar was next, an aged cheddar with a distinct bite and a great crumble. It was tangy and sharp – commensurate with the ageing process, which is a minimum of 8 months – with a beautiful earthiness that hit the back of the palate along with a fruity top note. I love a cheese with a flavour so complex that it feels like a full meal experience. This was one of those.
Which is not to say that you should stop there, by the way. While an excursion to Upper Canada Cheese can be fulfilling on its own, it’s a microscopic sliver of what the Niagara region has to offer. Travel in any direction for five minutes, and your appetite will be rewarded.
Niagara is, after all, the land of silky wines and honeyed meads, pick-your-own orchards and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s a place to bring loved ones and to strike up chats with strangers; a gastronomic abundance we cannot help but want to share with those around us.
For me, any day spent in the area has always been a remarkable reminder of my luck: like its cheese, life in Niagara can be so incredibly rich.