The Cheesemaker

From this month’s Toronto Life, Ruth Klahsen is a regular at the East Lynn Farmers’ Market.

July 2008

The Cheesemaker

Ruth Klahsen By Chris Nuttall-Smith

Ruth Klahsen’s Monforte Dairy makes the best cheeses in Ontario. Full stop. Pale rounds of pepato fresco—peppered sheep’s milk—are laid out in her aging room near Stratford like infants in a nursery, still a week away from growing the cat hair mould and the blue skein of penicillin that will make them strong. Wheels of toscano sit dense, sexy and assertive on their wire racks next to Klahsen’s ash-dipped crottins of chèvre, called Don’s Blue, after Don Cherry, because they look (but emphatically do not taste) like hockey pucks. 

She makes feta, cheddar, pecorino fresco and ricotta. She’s been doing it (legally, at least) for only the past four years. Klahsen started out as a chef but always dreamed of being a cheesemaker. At the Stratford Festival, where she cooked for the cast and festival staff, she used to make her own chèvre. Somebody—not a foodie, presumably—snitched and she was charged with producing an illegal dairy substance. But that wouldn’t stop her. She refinanced her house in 2004 to start Monforte. Klahsen does not sound or act like the average businesswoman. 

She hired her assistant cheese­maker during a shopping trip to Fabricland a couple of years ago; impressed with the girl behind the counter, she asked, out of the blue, “What are you planning to do with your life?” Klahsen learned most of what she knows from a tourist guide to French cheese (there are no cheesemaking schools in Ontario). She buys most of her milk from 19 Amish shepherds who live in a colony just south of Ingersoll; as the farmers don’t use conventional refrigeration, the milk arrives in a tank that’s cooled with ice cut from a lake. She personally sells most of her cheese at farmers’ markets (Brick Works, Trinity Bellwoods, Green Barn, Sorauren and St. Lawrence) and directly to chefs. Klahsen is brutally critical of her own work; she would rather talk about the amount of local land being sustainably farmed to produce the milk that makes her cheese—1,900 acres at last count—than the cheese itself. 

And yet Monforte Dairy’s sales have doubled in each of the past three years. And those illegal cheese charges all those years ago? “My lawyer told me not to say a word,” Klahsen recalls. “So, of course, I cried and confessed to everything.” They let her off.

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