The Small World of Cheese Experts
"We always just joke—if you had to hunt us down you’d find more astronauts than us, so they’d win," laughs Andre Derrick as he describes how small his world is. As one of only a handful of certified fromagers (trained and recognized cheese experts) worldwide, his is a small world indeed. We are sitting in the shade on the patio at his home in St. Catharines, Ontario, sipping wine and nibbling cheese (of course!). Nearly bursting with enthusiasm to talk about his craft, we launch into a discussion about what it takes to become a fromager.
Becoming a Fromager
"When I started studying cheese in 2013, the place to be was downtown Toronto on Adelaide, at George Brown College. Their continuing education program was really great," says Andre, "it was a great foundation to find out what the whole process is here in Canada, and how to get our artisanal, farm-to-table cheeses from the farms to the fromageries and then out and distributed. It was a great journey."
"It was such a good hands-on process. We got to go make cheese at Monforte Dairy in Stratford with Ruth Klahsen," Andre explains, "and then going through the whole idea of how to retail the cheese and package the cheese, what’s the best way to wrap and store cheese—all in a huge, inclusive program that took you right through what I was living every day at the time at Vineland (Estates Winery) which was the purchase, procurement, and selection of some of the best cheeses in the country, and the world, frankly." Andre is now currently the regional account manager for the Golden Horseshoe, representing Krinos Foods Canada, a major distributor of feta and other Greek-style cheese.
Quick to credit his mentors, Andre mentions people such as Globe and Mail columnist Sue Riedl. "She is an absolute icon, and even just to chat with her for the day was a huge learning opportunity for me. It’s really great to think of her and the way she was so open to helping someone and moving the next generation into the world of cheese." Another major influence he would like to pay homage to is Debbie Levy, whom he affectionately calls "the Cheese Princess of Canada, and my personal cheese fairy godmother. She introduced me to the whole world of cheese competitions and judging. She is a superintendent of the annual cheese competition at the Canadian Royal Winter Fair and just a huge promoter of Canadian cheese in general."
The Art of Pairing Cheese
Next I ask Andre about learning how to pair cheese with wine. "Someone said it’s like Daniel Craig in James Bond. First you have to go through and learn all the rules, then once you are James Bond and you are wearing tuxedos every day, you can break them." After a chuckle, he continues, "working in hotels and for Fairmont around the world, I thought I had this castle of food and beverage knowledge. I literally had to tear down that castle to build a palace and just go through the basics: salt, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and umami and how these all affect your palate. That was a really neat, humbling process, to just go back through the very basic, rudimentary aspects of tasting."
"Then from there you are just kind of looking at things on a scale, whether it is a beer, cider, wine, cheese, or whisky and thinking what’s a great example of a standard, what’s something that is a ten, what is a zero, and how do you then combine everything at a standardized rate so that you can taste everything?"
"But of course," Andre adds, "I am not only technical, I’m an aesthetics judge. Is it beautiful? Does it move my soul? Does it evoke an emotional response? Of course that is what makes certain cheeses and pairings so awesome!"
A Taste for Homegrown Talent
As the conversation turns towards the state of cheese in Canada, Andre clearly cannot contain his excitement. "Canada has been making and exporting cheese for over 100 years," he enthuses. "We really are blessed with coast-to-coast artisans who are making cheese at the absolute uppermost echelons, not just in Canada, but for the world." His number one piece of advice when it comes to exploring and experimenting with our homegrown product? "Cheese is fun. I think the best way to enjoy it is just with some friends and going on a Friday night and picking up a few different cheeses to enjoy at home. You are going to spend the same amount as you would on a decent bottle of wine."
"It’s all about sharing the love. Supporting the local producers and the local purveyors of cheese, it’s so important. We are really lucky, as Canadians, to get access to as many local cheeses as we do, whether you are at a grocery store or your local cheese shop, you truly can taste across the country. There are wonderful examples available of all varietals. We are making some of the world’s greatest cheeses and it’s great to see all the accolades rolling in."
Looking Forward: Competitions, Recommendations, and Future Plans
With awe and rapt attention, I listen as Andre goes on to explain how cheese is competitively judged and what it is like to be a judge at a cheese show. "It’s busy! It’s a lot of cheese. It’s a standard process, using all your senses to evaluate what’s going on with the cheese—what it looks like, what it smells like, what does it taste like, what is the texture. You are using all those variables to evaluate the cheese against a standard and how close to the standard each entry is. The many types of cheese are sorted into categories and awards are given for each category, with a grand prize for best in show."
"I would love to do a tasting pairing award-winning local Ontario cheese with award-winning local Ontario wines. How cool would that be?" As I nod in complete agreement, he reminds me, "What grows together, goes together!"
Throughout the conversation, he talks about different must-try artisanal cheeses from across Canada. Blues such as Dragon’s Breath and Tiger Blue, aged cheddars and bloomy Bries from Quebec, and Avonlea clothbound cheddar from PEI that show phenomenal terroir or "taste of place" are all high on his list of recommendations.
Never one to sit still, Andre loves to participate in local Niagara events showcasing cheese, wine, beer, and whisky. COVID-19 has obviously negatively affected these events in the short term, but he is looking forward to getting more involved at the community level in the future when the world returns to normal (aren't we all?). He is currently an organizer and host of the Frontier Whisky Society, an exclusive, small, membership-based club that meets regularly to learn more about whisky in a relaxed environment at the stylish Frontier Barbershop in St. Catharines. He also has an ongoing partnership with the St. Catharines Club as a staff trainer and event host.
"I always think of myself as an ambassador to cheese. It’s about getting my friends to enjoy as many new Ontario and Canadian cheeses as possible. It’s fun, you just mix and match with new wines, really great craft beers and ciders, or even whiskies, and I really love to chat about them all!"
I am confident that I speak for us all when I tell Andre that we are looking forward to continuing the delicious conversation. Cheers!
© 2020 Alina Trefry