A Cheese Primer with Nolan McGinlay

Alex Farm Products (Beaches) is located at 1965 Queen St E (416-690-3600)
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General cheese advice
Q&A with Nolan McGinlay
Taste testing ten different cheeses


[I]t is very hard to call someone a genius nowadays, especially someone at the still-ripe age of 22 years old.

Yet, from the moment of first meeting Nolan McGinlay, it is clear that this man is a cheese expert. Of course, in the atmosphere of never-ending cheeses, olive oils, vinegars and crackers, and surrounded by a light musty odor, it is hard to remove the image of a high-class foodie from your mind. This mood is shifted as we head from the cheese store to the Starbucks across the street, although McGinlay may disagree, it seems to be a more pleasant smelling setting for an interview.

If you rewind back six years, McGinlay was just a student in need of a job. He knew nothing about cheese, and simply took an entry-level job at Alex Farm Products located in The Beaches neighbourhood where he grew up. The store opened around the same time, allowing McGinlay to grow and train into a senior sales position. After around six years of studying their “cheese bibles,” a list of cheeses and other components like wine pairings, as well as labeling all the cheeses, McGinlay now considers himself a professional cheesemonger.

“There are around 500 different cheeses at the store, and I know every single one of them,” McGinlay says.

He was always a foodie, but never had a specific interest in cheese. It all changed once he started working at Alex Farm Products, a local cheese chain that imports from Canada and all around the world. Here, he gets to interact with other cheese-lovers, with their love for cheese ranging from normal to absolutely ridiculous.

“There was a woman that would buy this really expensive blue cheese from France, and she bought it specifically for her dog. She would buy the $80 a kilo brand, and buy around half a kilo. I wouldn’t think it would be good for dogs. We also have a few absurdly rich customers that come in. They would buy Bloc de Foie Gras, which is very expensive, and they would buy it for sandwiches. They would bring a baguette in and just spread it on their sandwich. I would look at them and be like, ‘you just spent around forty bucks more for your baguette right now,’” McGinlay says.

According to McGinlay, this richness and class is a common characteristic of the culture surrounding cheese.

“I think a lot of what cheese is has to do with the culture behind it. Cheese is an old food, and integrated into a lot of the Western European cultures, as the French have their blue cheeses and brie. The English of course love their cheddar, so cheeses are so ingrained in the culture.”

For McGinlay, cheese is an amazing accompaniment to his own Irish and Scottish heritage, one that includes beer and meat as standards in meals.

With beer, McGinlay suggests the Dutch cheese called Beenster, an aged Gouda from Holland. For his favourite beer, it is a regional beer from Ontario called Beau Lug Tread lagered ale. Together, this beer and cheese combination is his favourite. Aside from fondue, these are his favourite ways to eat cheese. Ice cream is another matter, he says as a side-note.

As also an expert on olive oil and vinegar, he has an interesting twist.

“Drizzle some balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream, then add cracked pepper and strawberries. It’s such a good combination.”

[M]cGinlay is full of advice to those wishing to get the most out of their gastronomic experience. Little do many people know, there are proper ways of buying and storing cheese, as well as certain ways to determine whether cheese is high quality or not.

“Buy cheese when it’s ready. With hard cheeses it doesn’t really matter, but with soft cheeses the best time is to buy it on the best before date. Canadian Health is pretty strict on best before dates, especially those with unpasteurized milk. So, the best time to eat soft cheese is before or just after that date. Also, leave it out an hour before eating, but make sure to refrigerate afterwards.”

McGinlay also encourages people to not keep cheese in Ziploc bags or plastic containers.

“Air is the kryptonite of cheese,” he says. It is always best to use Saran wrap or vacuum seal them to keep the air out. Additionally, grating makes the cheese dry out, so it is better to get it in block form and grate it yourself.

All these tips are ones common to a cheese expert, but may be surprising for some people who believe cheese is something that can easily “go bad.”

“Cheese smells stronger than it tastes. So there’s nothing really wrong with eating it too aged. People always think it has gone sour or something, but the milk has already been soured. Cheese can’t really go bad. When hard cheeses get moldy, you really just have to scrape off the mold,” McGinlay says with a laugh.

McGinlay ensures people that mold is actually somewhat good for you, since it contains penicillin. Unless someone is allergic to penicillin, or there is black mold growing on the cheese, it will not harm someone if the cheese is a little old or moldy.

These interesting facts are what should encourage people to go to a specialized cheese store. McGinlay has years of experience and training, and his knowledge of cheese can help a person with their cheesiest desires. Experts on food make eating a pleasure rather than just a means of satisfying hunger.

Oddly enough, he cannot use his cheese discount for his girlfriend Anna, since she is lactose intolerant. She tells me that she only realized this when she met him.

“I probably couldn’t handle it,” she says with a smile. In the store, she cannot help but taste the truffle brie. With lactose enzyme tablets, she suffers through for McGinlay.

McGinlay laughs. “This won’t be good later.”

As the interview comes to a close, the woman sitting beside McGinlay at Starbucks whispers, shaking her head.

“So much cheese.”

In my mind, I agree, stunned with all this new information.

I look over to McGinlay, and imagine him agreeing with a happy, enthusiastic grin.

So much cheese!




Q: Top three foods to eat with cheese:
1. Beer
2. Dry and cured meat such as prosciutto
3. Fresh fruit

Q: Favourite type of cheese:
Well, my favourite style of cheese is blue. Lots of people think its gross, but what they don’t understand is that the mold in blue cheese is in all cheeses. You can just see it. I usually eat it on its own like on a cracker, but steak is good as well.

Q: Least favourite type of cheese:
There’s this Portuguese cheese called San Miguel, and it’s made with spring milk, which makes the cheese quite sweet. But this cheese is almost too sweet like candy. It has a weird texture to it. I’ve had it once and I’ll never have it again.

Q: Most expensive cheese you have in your store:
It is this cheese called Testun Al Barolo. It is an Italian cheese that has been soaked in Barolo wine, which is very expensive. It is a cow and sheep milk mixture and that runs for about $12 per 100 grams.

Q: Anything you love more than cheese?
My girlfriend Anna.



After taste-testing ten different cheeses, I cannot help but agree with the woman at Starbucks. After the interview, the ramen at McGinlay’s recommended sushi shop in The Beaches tasted like water. It was all worth it though, as here is what I thought of McGinlay’s recommendations.



1) Triple cream brie from France:
This tasted like butter. It had a smooth and creamy texture with a strong brie flavour at first bite then gradually just melted in your mouth. It was so soft you would be best spreading it on a cracker.



2) 6 year aged Ontario cheddar:
This one was aged in artificial caves to mimic the humidity. It was very mild and tasted like a normal cheddar.



3) Saint Agur blue cheese:
It was very mild, and had an almost perfume-y or chemical like aftertaste. The flavour stays with you.



4) The (expensive) Barolo:
This cheese was amazing. First of all, it has the dried grapes from the wine enclosing the cheese, which adds more flavour. I couldn’t smell it, but it is known to fill the room with the smell of wine. It tasted like eating cheese with wine, but without the wine.



5) Valdeón from Spain:
Although pictured are both the Valdeón and Cabrales blue cheeses, the Valdeón is a less biting cheese than its cousin. Cabrales is known to be one of the strongest blue cheeses in the world. They are the only two blue cheeses left that are natural blue, since mold is usually added to the cheese. At first, it tasted salty from the chunks of salt, then got stronger in the mouth like a chili. Afterwards, I had a strange sensation of pins and needles, and my mouth felt numb. This is only for those who can stand strong flavours!



6) Beemster:
This is the one that is supposed to go well with beer. It was sweet and salty at once. It had a tangy aftertaste of vinegar afterwards.



7) Cantaloupe cheese (Mimolette) from France:
This cheese has an interesting story that should be told before eating. These little cheese mites or maggots will eat and live in the cheese, which adds a carbon dioxide and makes the cheese age faster. There are no bugs in it at the time of eating, but this may put off some people. It was a hard cheese that was very mild and tasted like cheddar.



8) Morbier from France:
This is a semi-soft cheese that looks like it has a blue mold stripe. However, this is just vegetable ash. Before, the bottom of the cheese was from the morning milking, so farmers would cover it with ask to keep bugs out and preserve it. The evening milking was put on top. Now, the stripe is just for decoration. The taste was soft and creamy, but not sweet. It had a musky taste with a milky undertone.



9) Applewood smoked cheddar:
This cheese would be amazing on sandwiches. It tastes like bacon, and has paprika on the outside to add to the smoky flavour.



10) Truffle brie:
This cheese had wild black truffle in it, which definitely makes it one of the more expensive cheeses. The taste was creamy, and was like drinking cream of mushroom soup because of the mushroom and cream combination.