Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/12/2017 (668 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Before we begin today’s story about Cheesemongers, a specialty cheese shop due to open soon at 839 Corydon Ave., owners Meg Gifford and Courtney Dhaliwal would like to take a moment to pay homage to a few individuals who, each in their own way, inspired them to open Winnipeg’s only dedicated fromagerie.
"For me it was my grandpa, who used to take me with him to get groceries on weekends," says Dhaliwal, seated in her and Gifford’s brightly-lit, 544-square-foot retail space. "To him, shopping for food never meant a single trip to Safeway. Instead, he always made a point of driving to a bakery for his bread and buns, to a butcher shop for his sausage and when he was in the mood for cheese, to whomever he felt was selling the best cheese, at the time."
"Both my parents are from Montreal and my mother grew up with good, European cheese in the house, as a rule," Gifford pipes in. "Her father — my grandfather — kept a little cheese shelf in his fridge, and there was always a nice block of cheese my mom could nibble on, she used to tell me. My parents raised me in the same sort of environment."
Gifford and Dhaliwal met in 2008, while walking their dogs through Crescentwood.
"When my dog Lumi was a pup, somebody at the dog park called him a bad apple, saying he started all the fights. But the moment he met Meg’s dog Charlie, not only did they get along famously, we did, too," Dhaliwal says, giving her pal a playful poke in the ribs.
Soon, the women and their husbands were spending time together on a regular basis, going to a movie, or taking turns hosting dinner. Five years ago, Dhaliwal, a systems engineer, and Gifford, a marketing and public relations expert, were lounging in a hot tub at the lake "après ski" when, over a glass of champagne ("OK, maybe two," Gifford chuckles), they began tossing ideas back and forth, about what sort of small business they could establish.
"Meg had always talked about having a business of her own, but I’d never really given it much thought, aside from this romantic vision in my head that, in retirement, I’d run a little cheese shop somewhere," Dhaliwal says. "I don’t recall, but I must have mentioned that to Meg at some point because suddenly, there we were, in the hot tub, coming up with business models for a fromagerie."
At the time, both women had a rudimentary knowledge of cheese, and could tell the difference between blue cheese and brie, for example, or soft cheese versus brined. But they agreed if they were serious about going into the cheese biz, the first thing they’d have to do is fully educate themselves on all aspects of the industry.
In 2013, Gifford and Dhaliwal joined the American Cheese Society, a non-profit organization open to anybody "passionate about specialty and artisanal cheeses." Through their association with the Denver-based body, they were put in touch with cheese shop owners across North America, whom they contacted by phone, email or, if they were travelling in the vicinity, in-person. After picking multiple vendors’ brains, they each signed up for a series of in-depth cheese workshops — Gifford at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont and Dhaliwal at Academie Opus Caseus in Saint-Haon-le-Châtel, France. There they were taught everything from how to age cheese to how to wrap cheese to how to milk a goat. ("I grew up in a family of farmers and had milked cows before, but I can honestly say that was my first time milking a goat," Dhaliwal says.)
"It was quite the experience, and really all-encompassing," Gifford says. "We weren’t so much trying to learn how to produce cheese for the purpose of being cheesemakers. Rather, it was about getting to fully understand all the steps along the way, so we’d be better prepared to answer questions, and become that liaison between consumer and cheesemaker."
Gifford and Dhaliwal founded Cheesemongers in 2014. Sure, a storefront location was their ultimate goal, but for the first two years, they were content, in Dhaliwal’s words, to "find creative ways to get cheese into customers’ hands without having a physical retail location."
"We had a temporary space in Osborne Village we did tasting events out of. Through our connections, we have access to 6,000-plus cheeses, from as far as New Zealand and Tasmania, so were always rotating our stock and streamlining things to meet people’s tastes," explains Gifford, adding she and Dhaliwal also became familiar faces at Banville & Jones Wine Co. on St. Mary’s Road, where, in tandem with a sommelier, they began hosting regularly-scheduled seminars, pairing wines with cheeses imported from all corners of the globe, as well as all regions of Canada.
In November 2016, the women added a cheese-of-the-month component to the mix, whereby interested parties could sign up for a three-, six- or 12-month subscription to receive a personally-delivered assortment of cheeses, hand-chosen by Gifford and Dhaliwal.
Elsie Guenther and her husband Craig Guenther own Urban Prairie, a full-service caterer based at the Winnipeg Winter Club. For his most recent birthday, Elsie got Craig a three-month, Cheesemongers subscription, a gift she describes as "the best fun ever."
"Every time the box arrives, it instantly becomes date night," Guenther says, describing Craig, a noted chef who has cooked for Queen Elizabeth, as "a huge cheese guy." "You open it up and inside are three cheeses — all of which have been exceptional, and none of which we ever would have found on our own. You also got a special gift. One time it was this gorgeous, dark-chocolate bar and another time it was a half-pound of butter that, according to the accompanying notes, was churned from the milk of a single, grain-fed cow. That butter was like... oh my God. We were licking the packaging, it was so good."
Gifford says Cheesemongers will continue offering its subscription service, despite the fact it has opened a bricks-and-mortar operation, with a full-service, cut-to-order cheese counter and seating for eight. (Come January, the duo plans to introduce a lunch menu, as well as offer a mix of in-house cheese and charcuterie boards, which can be paired with wine or local beers.)
"We truly believe Winnipeggers are ready for something like this because for the last two years, whenever we’ve done tastings or corporate events, everybody has been like, ‘Where are you located?’ or ‘When are you opening?’" Gifford says. "Winnipeggers travel a ton and there’s a lot they experience when they’re away, that they miss when they come back. A cheese shop is definitely on that list, we think."
Gifford, who grew up in Burlington, Ont. and didn’t move to Winnipeg until she was 22, nods and says, "Yes, I’m familiar with that," when reminded of this city’s Scrooge-like reputation, in regards to dropping upwards of $40 on a kilogram of cheese.
"Rather than using the word frugal, I think it’s more to the point to say Winnipeggers aren’t frivolous with their money, but do have a high expectation of quality," she replies. "I mean, look at the class of restaurants in our city... it’s amazing. Courtney and I think the people that support all these great dining establishments are the same ones looking to enjoy that quality of food at home, and that’s where we fit in."
That said, Gifford admits there are occasions when even she has a craving for something a bit more down-to-earth than a slice of, say, Moliterno al Tartufo, an Italian sheep’s milk cheese laced with black truffle, or Grand Paccard, a spreadable, soft cheese from France that becomes almost fondue-like when taken out of the fridge and allowed to reach room temperature.
"If I’m in the mood for a BLT or something, it’s processed cheese all the way," she says, grinning. "Heck, I still eat Kraft Dinner. I definitely have a deep-rooted interested in all these beautiful, artisanal cheeses but no, I wouldn’t describe myself as a cheese-snob, at all."
For more information, go to www.thecheesemongers.ca.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.