Despite being hours away from dairy country and not having a historical cheese culture, over the past decade Toronto has become one of the country's best spots for cheese lovers to call home. That's largely thanks to a generation of passionate entrepreneurs who have opened speciality cheese shops in the city to offer a selection of the best international cheese and increasingly world class Canadian ones as well.
With that in mind here are the best shops in the city to expand your cheese knowledge and explore its many delicious incarnations one wedge at a time.
One of many special events held at The Cheese Boutique
1. The Cheese Boutique
Over the past 45 years the Pristine family has built a mecca for Toronto's epicureans. The 10,000 square food store in Swansea has everything a gastrome could want or need. Whether it's dry-aged beef, premium olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, fresh truffles, foie gras, jamon and prosciutto, or preserves, the Cheese Boutique not only stocks the edible desirables you want, but has the premier example. To help you make the most of it at home, there's even a selection of top quality cookware like Mauviel and Staub that rivals the city's best kitchen stores.
Fine cheese is naturally chief amongst these gastronomic gems with a knowledgeable staff led by Maitre Fromager (a master sommelier of cheese) Afrim Pristine. They'll help you pick out the perfect cheese from the store's line-up of fine international and Canadian cheeses and do it with a smile. Always ask what's new, the store is regularly sourcing new products and likely has something you can't get anywhere else in Toronto. But what sets Cheese Boutique apart is not only a selection of cheese with unrivalled breadth and depth, but the pains the Pristine family takes to ensure their customers are getting their cheese at its peak.
That's where the cheese vault comes into play. Located within the store's retail space behind a door inviting you to “please come in”, this climate-controlled room is designed to slowly age cheese to perfection and houses some of Cheese Boutique's best. The value of the cheese in the vault alone exceeds most Toronto cheese shops and yet it's just a faction of the cheese it offers. Now you know why the store counts many of the country's top restaurants and chefs amongst its customers.
Speaking of which, every year Cheese Boutique holds a charity fundraiser series inviting some of the Toronto's best chefs to cook gourmet bites for customers. This year it extended that idea to collaborating with top restaurants for a series of dinners. The only knock on the store is that it's virtually impossible for a food lover to leave without lightening your wallet by at least one William Lyon Mackenzie King.
The Cheese Boutique, 45 Ripley Ave., 416-762-6292
2. Leslieville Cheese Market
This diminutive shop in its namesake neighbourhood is the retail embodiment of a good cheese plate. Here you'll find everything you need for a great spread starring cheese including fresh bread, crackers, olives, preserves, oils, vinegars and charcuterie including the house pâtés from owner Micheal Simpson's recipes. There's also a section of house soups, dips, quiches and savoury pies should you want to make it a light meal or grilled cheese sandwiches for when you're on the go.
A menu board separates the carefully curated selection of European classics and rising Canadian stars by country. With friendly pressure-free service the staff is happy to help you make a pick or create a cheese plate (these come with a free serving board and flag descriptions making entertaining a matter of unwrapping). The store is also committed to bettering the city's cheese culture by hosting themed classes for $25 with local cheese expert Julia Rogers as well as a cheese of the month club that includes tasting notes to accompany your cheese.
Leslieville Cheese Market, 891 Queen St. E., 416-465-7143
3. Chris' Cheesemongers
There's a few cheese shops in the St. Lawrence Market but if cheese is your focus this should be your store. It offers the best balance between selection and a pleasant experience. The staff is polite, patient and passionate. They'll gladly offer a taste and a few words about anything that catches your eye, guide you to something new, will never rush you and ensure you're content by the time you reach the register.
Chris' stocks a well curated selection of 200-300 cheeses with a focus on traditional and harder to find European cheeses as well as smaller Canadian artisan producers. Parmigiano Vacche Rosse (a richer, creamier, longer-aged parmesan made from the milk of traditional red cows) and Quebec's funky, fruity and creamy washed-rind Pikauba are recent highlights. The store's strength of a strong focus on cheese is also its biggest weakness. There's a small selection of pre-packaged charcuterie, crackers, oils, preserves and an olive bar so you can get everything you need to make a cheese course, but just as this is the best option for cheese, the Market has better options for those accompaniments.
Chris' Cheesemongers, 93 Front St. E., St. Lawrence Market #40, 416-368-5273
4. Alex Farm (on Beach)
This is the best location of this Toronto mini-chain of cheese shops. With hundreds of cheeses, a good olive bar, and a diverse selection of preserves, vinegars, crackers, oils and charcuterie it has everything a cheese lover could want. Its staff is as knowledgeable as it is enthusiastic and is happy to help you select the right cheese for the occasion. The speciality is European cheese (ask to try the house favourite: the nutty and fruity French Ossau-Iraty), but staff are just as comfortable guiding you towards Canadian gems like the creamy and tangy Geai Bleu from New Brunswick. What makes this store worth visiting is that staff genuinely care about keeping you satisfied for the long term by guiding you to the better value when contemplating two choices and giving you tips on storing your cheese to keep it at its best.
Alex Farm (on Beach), 1965 Queen St. E., 416-690-3600
5. Art of Wine and Cheese
On the edge of the Upper Beaches and in a small storefront that features a few dozen cheeses, the Art of Wine and Cheese hardly seems like a destination shop, but thanks to owner Bill Miller it's a place all Toronto cheese lovers should visit. There are a few imported classics (mostly European) but the shop's speciality is small batch Canadian cheese (its one of the only places in the city that has the double smoked version of the global award-winning Glengarry Lankaaster).
Each cheese is flagged with a small note, but it's best to ask Miller who can talk about each as passionately as the cheese maker (ask for the story behind the fruity, grassy and smoky East/West Edam). Growing up in St. Catharines, Miller picked up a passion for Ontario wine and has partnered with the nearby Diamond Estates store to regularly host $5 wine and cheese tastings.
For those that can't make it to the store, The Art of Wine and Cheese delivers to your door with its online store or cheese of the month club.
Art of Wine and Cheese, 925 Kingston Rd., 416-850-7639
Scheffler’s Deli & Cheese
Scheffler's has the St. Lawrence Market's best olive bar, an array of gourmet oils and condiments, rare ingredients like truffles and one of the best selections of charcuterie in the city. Its spread of hundreds cheeses is impressive and having them within customer reach is novel, but they're also sealed and packed like a grocery store making cheese seem like a secondary focus.
Scheffler’s Deli & Cheese, 93 Front St. E., St. Lawrence Market #7, 416-364-2806
Olympic Cheese Mart
A neighbour to Scheffler’s the focus is more on cheese, boasting a Market best 700 options. It also has an impressive olive bar and charcuterie section (although they're a step below Scheffler’s). Its section devoted to cheese on discount (it's not uncommon to see cheese in the section about to expire or looking very close to past its prime) indicates perhaps the selection is a little too wide and staff, while polite, don't exude passion.
Olympic Cheese Mart, 93 Front St. E., St. Lawrence Market #5, 416-363-7602
This Kensington Market stalwart is a great one-stop-shop for your antipasto needs with some of Toronto's best cheese prices, the largest selection of cheese in the Market and a solid olive and charcuterie bar. Where it falls short is staff. They are knowledgable but hustlers. Unrequested samples are offered every couple minutes (a lack of eye contact isn't a deterrent) and when busy you'll hear terse refrains of “anything else?” For the shy and shoppers who prefer to thoroughly browse before ordering this can seem aggressive and rude despite good intentions. Also the cash or debit (if over $10) only policy can be inconvenient for shoppers with big or small tabs.
Global Cheese, 76 Kensignton Ave., 416-593-9251