Philip Bélanger shares his passion for Canadian cheese
Text by Lekha Kanagasabai
A passionate cheese connoisseur, Philip Bélanger has gone, seen, and conquered the ends of the cheese world, tasting the finest there is to offer. “After exploring various cheeses from all over the world, I really fell for the ones in Canada,” he says.
Bélanger is Jury Chairman of the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. In fact, he is the competition’s longest-standing jury member, having been a part of it since its inception in 1998. Recently, cheese makers from British Columbia to PEI submitted 268 cheeses from 27 different categories in the competition. A panel of Canadian food industry experts gathered in Montreal selected 81 finalists that exemplified the world-class calibre of cheese being produced in Canada today.
This year, nine new categories were added to the competition. Though the champions won’t be unveiled until April, it was an extensive process where the jury members tasted all of the cheeses, beginning with the milder ones and progressing to the more full-bodied varieties. Each cheese was carefully observed, touched, smelled, and tasted, and evaluated based on very specific criteria including flavour, texture and body, colour, appearance, finish, and salt content.
“Canadian cheese makers are expanding their repertoire and producing unique, highly impressive, top quality cheeses,” says Bélanger.
What is the biggest challenge for competitors?
The toughest part is the evaluation itself. To me, everyone has chance to win and that’s why it has everything to do with your score within the category. The big competition is to choose the grand champion among all winning categories. In that respect, they’re all winners. It’s a tight race.
Do the stakes get higher and the competition get tougher every year?
Absolutely. I go back to 1998 and from my recollection, we had maybe 64 cheeses to evaluate out of five categories and now we have 27 categories and 268 cheeses. A large amount, compared to 2013 when we only had 225. So definitely, not only the quantity, but the quality, is continuously becoming a closer and closer [race] every year.
You’ve given seminars and educational presentations on Canadian cheese. What is your goal when you promote our cheese industry?
I’ve always had such a passion for cheese. Especially after exploring various cheeses from all over the world, I really fell for the ones in Canada. I saw the passion and the excellence here in Canada and I started getting involved with Dairy Farmers of Canada in the early 90s. I could envision that we’d become the envy of other cheese making nations of the world.
You’ve travelled all over Canada and tasted the finest of cheeses. What are some of your personal favourites?
I like the more pronounced flavours like old gouda and old cheddar. I love blue cheese as well.
What are some of the must-have cheeses every Canadian needs in their pantry?
I wouldn’t neglect a gouda, or a feta, but in this day and age, there are all kinds of flavoured cheeses. Depending on your taste, if you like hot chilli pepper, garlic and herbs, these are all excellent cheeses to consider as well, especially if you’re talking cooking.