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Smoked-Meat Diaries #12: The Wonders of Wine and Cheese

Posted by Will / June 9, 2009

20090609-winecheese.jpgWine and cheese are a natural pairing, and there's no other place in North America where they are enjoyed with such gusto than in Quebec. Elsewhere, the enjoyment of wine and cheese is stilted by archaic laws and restrictions, but Montrealers are free to bask in the pleasures of this intoxicating duo.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Montreal is the plethora of restaurants that allow you to "Apportez votre vin." This is rather unique. Out west in Winnipeg and Calgary, the notion of "Bring your own wine" is reserved for teenagers attending a weekend boozefest at the sand pits (and that's using a liberal definition of "wine" that includes plastic two-litres of apple-flavoured Growers).

apportez - jbcurio.jpgMy initial reaction to the whole "apportez votre vin" experience was suspicion. These feelings of skepticism have been mirrored by out-of-town visitors. Upon mentioning that we're going to bring our own wine to a restaurant, they inevitably raise an eyebrow and ask, "What's the catch?"
Me: There's no catch.
Friend: Yeah, but how does it work? You tip the waiter and he looks the other way?
Me: Nope, you just bring your wine and they open it for you.
Friend: Okay, okay. But how much do they charge you?
Me:It's free.
Friend: [chuckling] Sure thing there Aldous Huxley. What kind of Utopian-bring-your-own-wine world do you think we're living in?

They're always as amazed as I was when they discover that it's truly that simple. You bring the wine, they open it for you. Chin chin. In Winnipeg you are allowed to bring your own wine to certain restaurants but diners are charged a "corkage fee" which doesn't really make it worthwhile. Also, because it's fairly uncommon and the restaurants don't openly advertise the feature as they do here, it's quite tacky to bring your own bottle to a restaurant. I suppose some people do it so that they can enjoy a very specific wine that might not be offered at a particular restaurant. Personally, I don't have such distinguishing taste that I must insist upon drinking a particular vintage with my rack of lamb. And some people like to bring their homemade wine so that fellow diners can lie and throw around false compliments like "impressive body" and "clean finish" when really the words that come to mind are "chewy" and "Tic-Tac" (my father is a master at constructive homemade wine criticism - known for his diplomatic critique, "It's a bit young").

While the practice of bringing your own wine is generally frowned upon elsewhere, in Montreal, all the cool kids are doing it so there's no stigma or awkwardness. I have yet to try the "Apportez votre bière" option that some restaurants offer. Could you imagine how gangster it would be to plop down a sixer of Lucky Lager at a fancy restaurant?

And what goes better with wine than cheese? Growing up on the Prairies, I was led to believe that there are only two variants of cheese - slices and whiz. As far as I was concerned, that was all you needed - Cheese whiz on broccoli, cheese slices on bread to make grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese whiz with raisins and celery to make "Ants on a log." And wasn't that powdery cheese flavouring in Kraft Dinner just dried, pulverized cheese whiz? Sorry gang! I was totally out of the loop. My parents sheltered me from the wonderful world of cheese as though knowledge of unprocessed cheese would lead me down a dark path of cheese excess (picture me sitting on a cheddar throne wearing a mozzarella crown, ordering a serf to bring me more feta and Jarlsberg as I laugh maniacally, "Mwah-ah-ah! I loves me some cheese!"). Some blame should also be placed on the Kraft Corporation for brainwashed my malleable little brain into believing that slices and whiz were my only cheese options. Damn T.V. commercials rotted my mind.

slices3 - not martha.jpg

When I moved to Montreal, there was a wonderful world of cheese waiting for me. And how! Since moving to Montreal I've discovered there's much more to cheese than whiz and slices (Note: It's fun to say "whiz and slices"). In every Montreal grocery store, no matter how small, there's brie and camembert as far as the eye can see. Being a whiz-and-slice man for most of my life, it's a bit overwhelming. Where do I start? What should I try? Is this delicious? Should it taste like the bottom of a foot after 3 hours of tennis in 30 degree heat? So many questions. So many cheeses.

illustrationcheese2 - Jerome M.jpg

Cheese seems to be built into the Quebecois culture. Good food and good cheese go hand-in-hand. Every time I've attended a dinner with La Belle Fille's family, you'd think I was attending a cheese fair (or possibly a cheese convention). Without fail, after the main course a big plate of various cheeses follows. What's this? Cheese for dessert? Mon dieu! Hard cheese, soft cheese, aged cheese. A cornucopia of colours and shapes and smells. The crackers and breads that accompany the cheeses are often as fancy. Although, I should note I was a bit embarrassed the first time I went to one of these dinners and I scooped up some expensive-looking Gruyere with a knife before asking where the celery and raisins were. While everyone laughed at my witty repartee I quietly muttered to myself, "Yeah, that's right. It was a joke. Ants on a log...kid stuff."


It got me wondering why cheese is such a big deal here. If you examine the cheese section of a grocery store (always a disproportionally large section) you'll find that many of the cheeses are made right here in Quebec. So that got me to thinking: What's the scoop on Quebec cheese farming? To find out I conducted an extensive investigation (i.e., I typed "Quebec cheese" into Google) and I discovered a few things. Quebec has a long tradition of cheesemaking. There's even a Society of Quebec Cheese. This province is full of cheese aficionados. Many of the cheese farms offer tastings and there's even a cheese tourism industry. Another interesting factoid is that in the summer of 2008, a law was passed making Quebec the only state or province in North America to allow the production and sale of raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days. I didn't know what the hell that meant so I did some extensive follow-up research (Googled "raw-milk cheese") to discover that raw-milk cheese is cheese that has not been pasteurized. I didn't know what the hell that meant so I looked up pasteurization in the dictionary. According to Webster's, "pasteurization" is the process of slowing microbial growth by heating foods. I didn't know what the hell that meant so I decided to just trust the Internet (because everything you read on the Internet is the stone cold truth) and I can summarize the law by saying it allows Quebec cheesemakers the exclusive right to make all sorts of cheese (instead of only whiz and slices). And I think that's tops! No wonder people are so cheese-crazy in Quebec.

To learn more about cheese, contact your local cheese society. While you're doing that, I'm going to pour myself a glass of wine and spread some warm Havarti on a stalk of celery. Maybe I'll bring the Sunmaid in on the fun. I hope La Belle Fille won't get jealous.

Relevant song: "I'll Bring the Sun" by Jason Collett:
From your fine gilded chalice, I drank all your cheap red wine/ It was a good place to be Judas, hiding pearls from the swine/ I'll bring the sun, I'll bring the sun to you when I come.

Photo credits go to Flickr users jbcurio, Jerome M., not martha, and Dynomutt, as well as the good folks at Kraft Canada.



x / June 9, 2009 at 01:58 pm
Ants on a log with Cheez Whiz? Ick. I've only ever eaten ants on a log with good old Kraft peanut butter. Smooth, not crunchy. Anything else seems bizarre and gross. But then again, cheese in a jar is just wrong. Welcome to the world of real, delicious cheese!
Mike / June 10, 2009 at 02:16 pm
Great article... really makes me want some cheese. You need to compile these into a book - it would make convincing others (*cough* Torontonians *cough*) why Montreal is so charming much easier.
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