Notwithstanding the distinct society’s insatiable appetite for french fries dressed with springy curds, or our pan-national enthusiasm for cheeseburgers made with gooey orange “singles,” mozzarella and cheddar are by far the most popular cheeses in Canada. And we make what we need: we produced at least 30,000 tonnes more of each last year than we did butter.
Most of that is made by our cheese giants, like Saputo and Kraft Canada. While even young, mass-market cheddar is still cheddar, in mozzarella’s case the industrial variety is a hybrid type pressed to expel moisture so it shreds easily and lasts for months. This is the variety that is even sold pre-shredded, for those too busy watching TV to do it themselves.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of quality, volume and price, you find the Italian progenitor, made from the rich and rarefied milk of the water buffalo—a product the Italians believe tastes best the day it is made, and should always be consumed within its first week, but are nonetheless willing to sell to us at a premium well after that. For this reason one does well to seek out local buffalo mozzarella, like the grassy, artisan product from Natural Pastures in Courtenay, B.C., on Vancouver Island, or the milder tasting version from Quality Cheese, in Vaughan, Ont.
In between sits the product category of fresh mozzarella made from cheap, abundant cow’s milk, and it is this last category about which cheese distributor Cole Snell has of late been brooding. Specifically, the owner of Provincial Fine Foods, and its Toronto retail outlet About Cheese, wants to know why no one in Canada is selling fresh mozzarella that is genuinely fresh.
“In New York, when you go to a great cheese shop like Casa della Mozzarella in the Bronx, or Fairway, on Broadway, there’s always a mozzarella booth, with a guy forming the curd into cheese, and stretching it out by hand, tying it off, and selling it warm,” Snell enthused to me the other day, while piloting his BMW SUV in unrelenting downtown traffic. “Why not do that here? If you could have some prosciutto, some great tomatoes, fleur de sel, good balsamic—and warm fresh cheese for sale at the same counter…”
Fresh cheese like that, ready for the plate yet unacquainted with the refrigerator, has a discernibly superior texture to its previously chilled brethren. So Snell believes, anyway. Which is why, with a view to proving it, he has driven me deep into the west end of Toronto, where wedged between auto-body shops, sagging warehouses and rundown factories of the Junction, we eventually pulled up near a nondescript storefront under a sign announcing the factory outlet of the International Cheese Co. Ltd. It was late morning on Maundy Thursday, and under grey, drizzling skies, a queue 30-strong snaked out of the front door onto the wet street.
Marketed under the brand name Santa Lucia, the International Cheese Co.’s bocconcini had won the “best mozzarella” category at the seventh Canadian Cheese Grand Prix the previous evening. They also make provolone, mozzarella and ricotta—chilled, just made and still warm. More important to our mission, that morning they had set aside a couple of buckets of fresh curds for Snell.
“I’ve tried everybody’s,” he told me back in his car, now perfumed with the heady sweet aroma of whey. “These are definitely the best.” Later, in his test kitchen, Snell crumbled them into a mixing bowl while bringing a large pot of water to a boil. To that he added a rather shocking amount of salt and a splash of cream. When it returned to the boil he ladled some over the curds, and mixed them up with gloved hands until they softened and bound together. Then he drained the nascent cheese and did it again. After a long, repetitious sequence of stretching the cheese, folding it back onto itself, and stretching it out again, he wrapped the log in cellophane and tied it into balls.
He cut one off and we tucked in. Mild, soft, sweet, squeaky on the teeth—just the thing for a summer tomato salad. Snell will be selling his N.Y.-style mozzarella at his Toronto shop every Saturday. And by the looks of it, your local cheesemonger can easily manage the same, if you give him a nudge.