I never take for grateful the generosity of the Toronto food community when it comes to helping out my boys’ cooking club and am always blown away by how enthusiastic everyone is to work with Les Petits Chefs. This week, we were lucky enough to head over to Cheese Boutique – which just happened to be the venue for our first ever Petits Chefs field trip back in 2011! Afrim from Cheese Boutique is an alum of our school and his nephew, one of our students. Cheese Boutique is always very generous when it comes to school functions and fundraising and I was excited to show a group of many new-to-the-school boys a veritable Aladdin’s culinary cave! But it’s not just the wonderful products that are the draw at the store – Afrim himself is a wonderful role model for the boys – someone who absolutely loves what he does – it’s refreshing to see such passion for a craft (a “métier” as they call it in France) in someone so young.
As well as being impressed with the bucket-sized Nutella, the boys got to taste aged Balsamic vinegar which surprised more than one of them. Some were worried it would be “sour” but the sweetness won them over. Afrim showed the boys where they age the balsamic in-house and explained their system.
And the spectacular meats. The boys were fascinated to look at the huge cuts of meat hanging in the butcher section and comparing them to the beautifully butchered meats on sale and realise that it was the same meat, only cut up differently. Cheese Boutique has an in-house butcher (the boys learned the term “butchering” and how it’s an art and different from “just cutting up the meat”) and they also age their meat in-house. As I said, it’s a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of treats!
But Afrim’s team had thought of everything. The boys (and adults!) were served some artisinal blood orange lemonade and a selection of cheeses and charcuterie on arrival on clever carry-around plates that held their glasses so they were able to look at all the tasty treats without tummies rumbling (too much!).
Of course, we got to check out the famous “cheese vault”. Cheese Boutique has been supplying Toronto’s chefs and restaurants with cheese selections for over 40 years and this is where they hang out until they are ready to eat…
The cheese vault was definitely a highlight of the day. It’s filled with giant and sometimes very old and/or expensive cheeses. Spotting some very very old (museum pieces now, actually) mimolette on the shelf, one of the boys asked if that was, indeed, a cheese and why did it look so odd.
Afrim was delighted to tell the boys about the mimolette cheese (of course – it’s a great story about how the cheese ages in a cave and is consumed by cheese mites which give the cheese’s rind it’s famous “holey” appearance). We learned how the cheese is banned in its natural state in both the US and Canada (the boys were very interested in hearing about the customs officer who might have opened a box of the cheeses at the border to a flurry of bugs!) but now, we are able to get this cheese in Canada because the clever cheesemakers in Europe are coating their cheese rounds in wax.
Then we got to taste…
At the end of the tour, we got to hang out in the main section of the store – featuring what else, but more cheese!
What I loved about this trip was how excited and enthusiastic the boys were about pretty much every aspect of this visit. It’s always a little bit unsure bringing boys on a trip where they don’t get to cook (they’re pretty lucky to have cooked in some of the best kitchens in Toronto!) because I worry that they will be disappointed. This trip showed me why it’s important to include trips like this in our Petits Chefs repertoire. Exposing the boys to passionate food enthusiasts like Afrim helps them understand the importance of ingredients. Over and over, Afrim stressed the fact that a chef is nothing without his ingredients and that’s why it’s important to use the best you can (and that will obviously be at different levels for different people/purposes). Knowing more about our food and how it’s made and where it comes from is such an important thing to teach the next generation and Afrim is a great advocate for this. I could have listened to him chat about food for hours. And I am sure the boys would have happily hung out at the store for a lot longer too – there’s so much to see!
Thanks to Sophia for facilitating the organisation of this trip, Afrim for hosting and for the parent volunteers who drove across he city in rush-hour in a rain storm to get the boys there and back. I’m so grateful for everyone’s generosity and support of this programme. It takes a village, right?