Doug Smith, co-owner and operations manager of Vancouver Island’s Natural Pastures Cheese Co., shares the perfect anecdote to illustrate the growth of Victoria, British Columbia’s cheese culture. “When we started at our local farmers market, we presented a Brie to people they had never really tried it before,” he says. “They would ask things like, ‘Can I eat the mold?’ Now 15 years later, I’ll ask little kids what they want to try, and they’ll say Brie because they love the taste. That’s a very short time period where people didn’t even know what this cheese was and now their children love Brie.”
This combination of growing cheese knowledge, strong community support for local producers and myriad outlets for buying artisan dairy products is making Victoria a destination worth seeking out. “It used to be a world of supermarket cheeses, but it’s not like that anymore,” says Geneviève LaPlante, general manager of Ottavio Italian Bakery & Delicatessen, the community’s oldest cheese shop. “Now our customers come back from their travels with special requests for cheeses. They understand there’s a seasonal aspect to cheese. It’s been great to have that customer base change and grow with us.”
Daniel Wood, general manager of Salt Spring Island Cheese Co., located on neighboring Salt Spring Island, says the area isn’t a cheese mecca in the same way Italy or Spain might be. “But it’s a fantastic local and eclectic food destination,” he reports. “For people who are interested in traveling and different food projects and wineries and small craft breweries, southern BC, and specifically the islands, are something to consider.” It’s also worth noting that many local cheesemakers are dedicated to supplying their loyal fan base first, which means a trip to Victoria allows you to sample cheeses that aren’t available anywhere else.
September is the perfect time for a visit. The shoulder season brings beautiful weather and fewer people. Start a cheese adventure in the neighborhoods surrounding the city center, which are home to the best markets. Then return downtown to check out some of the city’s outstanding restaurants. (Or get really adventurous and do a cheese crawl around the Channel Islands; see details in the sidebar.)
Inside the pointy black tents that front The Root Cellar is a virtual foodie mecca. Part farmers market, part grocery store, the green grocer sells seasonal, local and organic produce as well as dry goods, meat, flowers and copious amounts of delicious dairy products.
Deli manager Liv Kosub has the enviable job of stocking not one but two cheese cases. She starts the tour at the one highlighting local producers. One of the shop’s bestsellers is the goat cheese from Smits & Co., which operates on mainland British Columbia. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Chèvre; instead, shoppers can buy Gouda infused with garlic and chives, mustard and curry, or stinging nettles. The company also makes a delectable goat Emmental.
Next, Kosub points out cheeses from Natural Pastures, which has the island’s only herd of water buffalo. Their milk is used for a popular Brie and Bocconcini di Bufala. Natural Pastures also make an outstanding Boerenkass (farmer’s cheese) and Camembert with cow’s milk. Salt Spring Island Cheese Co.’s colorful pots of Chèvre, which are topped with artfully-arranged basil leaves, garlic cloves, lemon slices or flowers, also grace these shelves.
“A couple months ago, I noticed I was having a lot of customers ask me about raw milk cheese,” says Kosub. “So we started really highlighting that.” A separate dairy case holds mild Blue d’Elizabeth from Sainte-Elizabeth-de-Warwick in Quebec, alpine cheeses and Manchego.
A few miles from The Root Cellar is Charelli’s Cheese Shop, Delicatessen and Catering. It started as a specialty food store in 2003, but cheese quickly became one of their top-selling items. A large case in one room is filled with cheeses from around the world as well as prepared meats, olives and spreads. The surrounding shelves are packed with crackers, salts, olive oil and vinegar, and other goods more in line with the specialty mission.
“I know everyone who comes in, so I can say, ‘You won’t like that’ or ‘You should try this,’” says owner Carmen Lassooij. The most important part of her business is her customers, so she makes sure they’re treated right.
That means staying stocked up on popular favorites as well as introducing customers to new things. Staples at the store include Le Dauphin double cream from Will Studd, Beemster’s XO, English Cheddar with caramelized onions and a nutty Challerhocker.
The most common way customers try new cheeses is by sampling them on Charelli’s legendary cheese platters. A huge selection of cheeses are laid out on a stone tablet, then heaped with fruit, charcuterie and flowers. They’re quite popular as housewarming gifts or for parties and special occasions.
From Charelli’s, venture on to Ottavio Italian Bakery & Delicatessen along charming Oak Bay Avenue. As you mount the tall steps to the store, a tall tinkling fountain gives the feeling of an Italian piazzo. An orange Vespa on a tall platform behind the counter furthers the feeling you’ve traveled to another country. “Our playful tagline is, ‘Drive fast and eat slow,’” says LaPlante. It’s a nod to the Italian owner’s belief that when it comes to food, good things come to those who wait.
Displays that show off authentic Italian pastries, breads and gelato look tempting, but the cheese cases will keep you front and center. One is dedicated to Canadian cheese. Another has imported products, bringing the shop’s total cheese offerings to over 200.
“There’s some Quebec cheeses that are real standouts,” says LaPlante. She cites the Grey Owl ash-coated goat cheese as the best example. She’s also partial to Avonlea clothbound Cheddar from Cows Inc. on Prince Edward Island, and the washed-rind Blue and Brie cheeses from Upper Bench Winery & Creamery, located on mainland British Columbia.
A good neighborhood spot for dinner is Stage Wine Bar. The restaurant serves small plates, cocktails and wines by the bottle or glass. When the server brings the menu, they also bring a card that lists the currently available cheeses and charcuteries, many of which are locally made. Use this to build your own cheese plate, which is served with a basket of bottomless crackers.
A ROAD TRIP TO NORTHERN VANCOUVER ISLAND
AND SALT SPRING ISLAND
Once you’ve exhausted Victoria’s numerous attractions, visit some of the places where these outstanding cheeses are made. Start with Little Qualicum Cheeseworks on Morningstar Farm in Parksville. On a self-guided tour, you can visit the creamery’s cows, stop at the “Mooseum” to learn about its history, and sample cheese and wine. The farm is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round, except on major holidays.
Natural Pastures Cheese Co. in Courtenay has a cheese shop and tasting room that receives visitors most days. Tours aren’t available, but there is a window that provides people with a glimpse into the cheesemaking operation. The store is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Salt Spring Island is a 35-minute ferry ride from Sidney. Salt Spring Island Cheese Co. is open every day of the year, except for major holidays. After a self-guided tour through the operation, visit the tasting room to try the company’s products. The creamery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year
Should you need to confine your time to Victoria’s walkable center, there are two options for cheese. Choux Choux Charcuterie specializes in cured meats but also carries a good selection of cheese. They’re easy to spot; watch for the salamis hanging in the windows.
With its tall marble columns, the Victoria Public Market looks a bit like a bank, but inside, people trade cash for prepared food and provisions instead of loans and securities. Market stall Ravenstone Farms sells products from the island’s Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, which offers a wide range of cheeses including raw-milk aged products, Feta, Caerphilly, Blue and Brie.
When dinnertime rolls around, there are numerous good options for turophiles. Zambri’s is a popular Italian restaurant that has authentic pizza and pasta. It’s worth going to The Local just for their aptly-named Stanley Cup poutine, but their hot cheese pretzel, nachos, mac and cheese and other cheesy dishes are also quite good.
Bodega, located at the mouth of the historic Trounce Alley, serves tapas and small plates, including a cheese and charcuterie board. If their menu doesn’t look appealing, go next door to The Tapa Bar, which has chile rellenos, chile con queso fondue and other cheese-heavy dishes.
For people interested in tasting more of Victoria’s terroir, the food at 10 Acres is about as local as it gets. The business has three locations, each of which use produce grown on a company-owned farm (the rest is sourced from other local purveyors). Northern Quarter is another eatery that focuses on local and seasonal food.
Even some local accommodations offer good places to eat cheese. Chateau Victoria’s Vista 18 restaurant gets its name from its 18th floor location. Snack on goat cheese flat bread, beer cheese soup or a heartier meat or seafood dish while enjoying the view. Lure, the waterfront restaurant at the Delta Hotels Victoria Ocean Pointe, does a nice cheese plate with local products. Eat it while watching boats putter, seaplanes take off and land, and the water lap the island’s shores.