Friday, April 11, 2008

Niagra-on-the-Lake and Cheese Secrets

Hey there once again. Thanks for visiting for the first time or coming back. Either way, if you are really bored, feel free to join me in exploring my recent trip. I had low culinary expectations in traveling to a small city in Canada called Hamilton. Hamilton is a steel town; somewhat akin to Pittsburgh except with less personality. It’s a city of about 500,000 on Lake Ontario between Buffalo and Toronto. While a bit dreary, I did learn that the surrounding communities between here and Niagara Falls hold some rich culture, and some good food. What really stood out on this trip wasn’t any great meal I had (because I didn’t really have one), but instead some great cheese, neat people and fantastic conversations I had in a little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake.

It began with a first time meeting with a Canadian colleague of mine named Margaret. We met on Thursday, my last day in Canada. In casual conversation, Margaret mentioned that her mother was an owner of a Cheese shop called “Cheese Secrets” in this town I had never heard of, Niagara-on-the-Lake. I became all ears. How cool is that? I suddenly felt like I was in the presence of greatness. After more chatting, it turns out that Margaret and her boyfriend spend a fair amount of hours helping out at the shop and have a stake in it as well. I know she could tell I was pretty excited to hear about it, so she suggested I come by for a tasting after work. “No” was not an option. At about 4 pm I began watching the clock and counting down. I had some finishing up to do so I got out maybe a couple of minutes before 5. After a quick refresh in my hotel, I was off. It’s about 45 minutes from Hamilton to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the drive is frankly quite unattractive. The scenery changes, though, upon pulling in to town. Niagara-on-the-Lake is an artisan community that swells in the summer months. Beautiful boutique-style shops line the downtown area at the edge of the Niagara River. Since this is the “off” season, by the time I arrived at 6:30 PM, the streets had pretty much been rolled up and not a shop was open. It was a bit gray and windy as well. But my GPS took me right to the front door of “Cheese Secrets” where Margaret was waiting for me. (DISCLAIMER- I’m embarrassed to say that I am the WORST with names. I met several really nice folks and I only remember one name besides Margaret. Forgive me.) I was immediately introduced to her mother, her mother’s gentleman friend, Margaret’s boyfriend and a shop worker who was tidying up (her boyfriend Steve becomes relevant shortly).

After a quick tour of the shop, Margaret took me behind the counter for some tasting. She offered the entire case for my choosing but trying to be a polite guest and having little experience with artisan cheeses, I had her select. I think we tried 6 or 7 flavors. They were all noteworthy and spectacular. From biting to creamy to heady and edgy, she selected a perfect array to sample. We tried both Canadian and imported cheeses. An import that stood out was an amazing Blue Cheese from New Zealand. I was told they have a hard time keeping it in stock because many of the local chefs request it for their cooking. I can see how this creamy and delicate cheese which was perfectly balanced with a softer than usual tang, would be desired by the discriminating palate. It also stood up perfectly to being eaten directly from the cheese knife.
Next was a unique caramel colored cheddar that was made by with Guinness Stout beer. Margaret began by telling me this was not her favorite. While wine and cheese may be the classic combination, this Guinness Cheddar was a perfect pairing for me. It had a stout headiness and medium to light sharpness. Quite delicious.

The last cheese I tasted probably stood out the most. Margaret had mentioned that this was her favorite and it was quite easy to see why. It was an applewood smoked cheddar. Light in color and not sharp at all. You can almost appreciate the smokiness just before it gets to your lips. It was an unparalleled combination of perfect texture, smokiness and mild cheddar flavors. In recipes, on sandwiches or simply by itself, I felt this was a prize cheese. While Margaret offered anything else I wanted, I felt I had eaten the perfect sampling without being gluttonous (although I continued to nibble on the Emmenthaler and smoked Gouda as we chatted in the now empty shop).

Once we cleaned up and her boyfriend strayed back in, we headed out the door and next door to an English pub where I met another of my heroes of the evening. The young lady shop worker from earlier and her boyfriend were at the bar enjoying a pint. Steve, the boyfriend of the shop worker (this would be so much less wordy if I had jotted down names), is a chef at one of the higher brow restaurants in an already higher brow community. If that conjures up thoughts of a pompous, pretentious foodie, put that notion to rest right now. Steve is a rough neck Welshman. With thick accent and gruff voice, from cigarettes no doubt, he looks like he’d be more at home in a Rugby Pitch than a kitchen. Nonetheless, as we chatted, I could hear his description of recipes and his passion for cooking them (I can’t wait to add beets to my Gravlax to get the Salmon a rose color). Steve has to be one of the most colorful folks I’ve met in a bit. Quick witted and smart in a conversation about food (he regards the young cooks coming out of school as ‘wanna be’s’ trying to be famous after growning up with FoodTV), he has a confidence in his voice that he knows exactly what to do in the kitchen and loves it there.

So for the next hour or two and a couple of pints (and a couple of shots), I felt I had made some new friends and learned a bit about the community. My ride back to the hotel was punctuated by thoughts of this writing and if I could do any justice to the fantastic time I had with Margaret and her friends. I look forward to returning for another business trip in the summer and another night at the pub.

Again, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line at


Anonymous said...

If we are interested in purchasing some cheeses from your place, how can we go about doing that???? please email us back with contact information at

Tish said...

I live in Niagara on the Lake, and I'm just on my way to the cheese shop. I'm glad you enjoyed your visit, and private tasting! You must come back in the summer when the bounty is remarkable. Check out some wine tours, pick up some doesn't get much better than that.