I think I was there seven years ago at the inaugural edition of what’s known as the Great Canadian Cheese Festival held early in June at the Picton Fairgrounds.
It certainly had been awhile. So Lynn and I decided last-minute to head down to the 2017 edition, as much for the drive as for the festival.
The payoff would be magnificent: She’s an absolute cheese fanatic and, even though I have the lactose intolerance thing, I tend to cheat, especially with the harder varieties. I experiment, never knowing for sure what cheese might cause, er, difficulty.
The best part of the Lake Ontario-side drive is usually crossing from the mainland to Prince Edward County via the Glenora Ferry; there’s no charge because the ferry is treated as an extension of the land road, the costs covered by your benevolent provincial government.
However, this spring’s unusually high water caused boarding problems, backing traffic up along Highway 33 from the dock. Providing corrective ballast, a loaded transport truck was permanently positioned on the boat, removing from service several slots for passenger vehicles.
We finally got to the festival… although I’m unconvinced it’s worth the $50-a-day admission, waved for us because we’re both reporters. For their money, paying guests got tote bags and some free cheese samples… but the wine tastings were an extra charge.
While the focus is on pure cow, goat sheep and even water buffalo milk artisan cheese, the festival is also choc-a-bloc with other vendors, including wine, craft beer, charcuterie, honey, preserves, chocolate and useful handmade items such as wooden cutting boards. Sampling lineups are long at the food and beverage booths.
There are now more booths offering other products at the festival than cheesemakers. That’s okay, says festival founder Georgs Kolesnikovs whose organizing team includes a spiritual advisor: “It’s changing but cheese is still the heart. I love charcuterie. I never met a sausage I didn’t like.”
Kolesnikovs has molded what started as a local gathering of likeminded businesses and organizations into a festival said to be North America’s largest of the kind. Even at the beginning, he says the festival had the buzz: “I was overwhelmed. You get a lot of kindred spirits in a small place and magic happens.”
He wants to expand the program next year by bringing in another food-related event, the nature of which he won’t yet divulge. The festival now draws some 5,000 visitors from the county and well beyond. While the 2017 edition happened under fairly steady rain, it didn’t seem to dampen overall crowd enthusiasm.
Most of the 130 exhibitors are set up inside the fairgrounds’ landmark Crystal Palace and another building; some are in tents outside the palace and that’s where visitors tended to get wet… but far from stopped in their tracks.
Part of the attraction is the main venue, the 1890 frame and glass Crystal Palace which sold Kolesnikovs on Picton when he was looking for a location to showcase the fine Canadian cheese he knew was being manufactured but not sufficiently promoted.
“Here was this great place… distinctive, classic, no concrete. I could imagine people milling around inside, all the cheese tables and booths.” There definitely is much milling around.
Special features this year included a focus on raw milk cheese, “the way God intended cheese to be”; the first 1,000 people through the festival doors received a packet of Quebec’s raw milk Le Pionnier. Another accent was on gouda, featuring an Alberta selection judged to be the best gouda in Canada.
The festival also promoted several younger cheesemakers with profiles on social media. With the help of Ottawa cheese sommelier Vanessa Simmons, Kolesnikovs and crew established a bursary to bring at least one young producer to the show with all expenses covered.
The festival founder and director emphasizes that it’s not all “wine and cheese and roses.” Attendance has plateaued and it remains a challenge to get people to drive the distance to this or any event, pay admission, drive back or pay to stay overnight.
Still, he doesn’t want to move the festival to a big city where people would just jump on the subway to attend: “Artisan cheese is green grass and blue skies and connection to the land.”
Sufficiently fortified, Lynn and I headed home… carefully avoiding a return trip on the ferry.