Valerie Hill | The Record
While studying art, Kelsie Parsons discovered cheese.
Stopping by his favourite cheese vendor in a Toronto farmers' market one day, Parsons noticed a sign advertising help wanted.
"I thought: 'That really is my dream,'" said Parsons, who gave up a career in art to learn the fine art of selling cheese.
As he turned 31 this past weekend, the Stratford resident was jetted off to Sacramento, Calif., where he will serve as an official cheesemonger at this week's American Cheese Society conference, which attracts more than 1,000 industry players from around the world.
Parsons, cheese manager at Sobeys Ira Needles in Kitchener, is one of only two experts at the conference whose job will be preparing thousands of cheese plates for a variety of events, including a competition that could have as many as 1,700 entries.
Parsons grew up in Stratford, moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design and work in art — he doesn't dwell on that part of his life, preferring to talk about cheese — then he worked for the cheese vendor.
For two years Parsons travelled the province with his boss, cheese expert Gurth Pretty, author of the 2006 book, The Definitive Guide to Canadian Artisanal and Fine Cheese, learning everything he could about his favourite topic.
"I love the flavour of cheese, the history," he said. "Every cheese has a story."
Like most Canadian kids, Parson grew up eating cheese curds and standard cheddar, not trying anything too experimental. So the new world of flavours and textures he was exposed to was inspiring, even life-changing.
"I lived in Italy for a year," he said. "I was studying art, but I loved the cheese, food and wine."
Parsons, gave up his first career to embrace the world of cheese. He took a few courses, then studied at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, the only one of its kind in North America.
After graduating, Parsons returned to Stratford and completed an apprenticeship with Stratford's Monforte Dairy, making cheese from goat and sheep's milk. Still keen to learn more, in the summer of 2012 he hit the road, travelling across the country to visit 120 cheese-making facilities and farms. Canada, he discovered, has some pretty impressive cheese makers, with a large number centred in Quebec, though Ontario and British Columbia are equally impressive.
He now focuses his efforts on educating the public about cheese and is always looking to add new, interesting stock to the 300 types his store already offers.
"Cheese is very much like wine. There are so many different flavours," he said.
Thirty-month-old aged Parmigiano-Reggiano is imported from Italy as a full wheel and is "cut in each store by hand," he said. Cutting such a large hunk of cheese is known as "cracking a wheel."
The store also carriers a particularly interesting Gruyère cheese imported from Switzerland, where the cheeses are cured in mountain caves which provide just the right balance of humidity and cool temperatures.
While imported cheeses have unique qualities, Parsons is quick to point out that Canadian cheeses are both interesting and high-quality.
The semifirm Niagara Gold, made by Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station, has become one of his favourites.
"They only make it from the milk of Guernsey cows and it's very rich and buttery," he said, noting the cheese tends to have a buttery gold colouring, too.
Mountainoak Gouda is made on a farm in Wilmot Township
"The cheese they make is so fresh they don't even cool it (the milk) down first."
Goudas lend themselves well to added spices, Parsons said. Holland, where the cheese originates, was once the centre of a worldwide spice trade, which encouraged experimentation with cheese.
Parsons speaks of the complexity of flavours, how they change as the cheese ages and about the addition of interesting enhancers such as the wild nettle that infuses Mountainoak's Gouda. It's delicious and a bit spicy.
He also talked about the new trend of matching cheese with honey: a little drizzle, a chunk of colby, all washed down with a gulp of Ontario pinot noir.
Parsons is so keen on Canadian cheese, he is about to release his first book, a self-published guide aptly Curds and Eh. He also contributes a blog on the website cheeseandtoast.com.
Parsons said he is always available to advise shoppers. On Aug. 21, he is leading a tour of Mountainoak Cheese Company, outside New Hamburg, his first road trip with customers.
Parsons is pleased to see so many cheese makers popping up in and around Waterloo Region again, picking up a tradition that started a century ago when the area was being settled and cheese makers were as plentiful as blacksmiths.
"It's exciting to see them starting up again," he said.