History of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

Written by Janet Davies
How it all Began.

Georgs Kolesnikovs fell in love with artisan cheese when he was 18, thanks to the Trappist monks of Oka, Quebec. He tells us how an Oka-loving teenager became the founder of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival that now happens every year in Prince Edward County.

“I was hitchhiking to the Maritimes and stayed the night in Oka. At breakfast they served me a cheese that changed my life. It was like a moment of epiphany. I never knew cheese could be so delicious,” he recalls. “After that I set out to learn as much as I could about cheese. I became a real amateur enthusiast. We did a lot of traveling and sampled artisan cheeses all over Canada and in Europe.” By the early 2000’s he was hearing a lot of talk about new Canadian cheeses, but outside of places like the St. Lawrence Market and specialty shops, he couldn’t easily find them. “My wife Lin and I had to go straight to the source, to the cheese-makers, to find out about Canadian artisan cheese. We were excited to go to shows that were billed as wine and cheese, and then we’d be so disappointed because there was lots of wine but not much cheese.” They decided to create The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

“We knew people were out there making great cheese. As consumers, we’d love the chance to sample row upon row of Canadian artisan cheese – we figured a lot of other people would too. Lin and I had worked together on boating events in the U.S. and I had organized big motorcycle shows from Madison Square Gardens to the L.A. Convention Centre, so we knew how to do it.” The first thing they needed was a venue. “I didn’t want to do this in downtown Toronto, surrounded by concrete and glass towers, that doesn’t say “artisan cheese”. Artisan cheese is green grass and blue skies and connection to the land.” Where to choose? He considered the London area, southwestern Ontario, but, as it happened, a handful of rural counties in Eastern Ontario had started an initiative they called Invest in Cheese. “They weren’t saying they were an epicenter for local cheese,” he says. “But they were interested in promoting the industry, so that’s where I headed.”

It was 2010. The counties were Lennox & Addington, Hastings, Frontenac and Prince Edward County. “I was a little familiar with The County,” he says. “I’d visited in the early 90’s and loved it. I wish I had bought a waterfront property back then! I vaguely remembered Picton Fairgrounds and I left The County to visit last and went to see economic development people in Hastings and Frontenac first.” As a show manager, the new Strathcona Community Centre near Napanee with its electrical outlets every ten feet and big loading dock impressed him. It was the strongest contender – until he saw Picton’s Crystal Palace.

“I went down to The County and met with Dan Taylor, he was economic development officer at the time, and Karin Desveaux. She had just left the restaurant business and was, and is, a wonderful person. They both vowed to do all they could to help me, and Karin actually worked with me on the first festival. It was Karin who walked Georgs across the road to the Crystal Palace. “That was it,” he laughs. “Here was this great place built like 140 years ago – distinctive, classic, no concrete. I could imagine people milling around inside, all the cheese tables and booths, nice tents and canopies on the grass outside, and there was the curling club and community centre and fairgrounds right there.” He didn’t tell Dan right away. “I wanted to play it cool, but I went home and told Lin we’d found our place.”

Georgs has been a journalist most of his life. He says when you write, no matter how terrific, it has no purpose or meaning until somebody reads it. He’s organized sporting events and he knows they mean nothing unless people come. “But when people come,” he says. “If they’ve got a passion for what’s on display, there is the most amazing buzz. Our first Great Canadian Cheese Festival had that buzz. I was so happy. I was overwhelmed. I was super emotional. You get a lot of kindred spirits in a small place and magic happens. I’ve seen it with motorcycles, with boats and now with cheese, and, because it’s food, there’s this marvelous conviviality, too. That first festival in 2011 was a huge highlight in my life. In 2012 it grew to two days, and this year is our seventh annual. First weekend in June, always the first weekend in June.”

He’s already planning for 2018. “We want to do an expanded program in The County, bringing another event here,” he says. “It will be food-related but not a public festival. I can’t say much about it yet, but stay tuned! I will say it’s because we are so encouraged by the reception we get in Prince Edward County, starting with the municipal government. The support we get from the mayor, Robert Quaiff – he was one of our judges last year, for the Grilled Cheese Chowdown, and from all the professionals I deal with. We deal with Rebecca Lamb and Ashley Stewart in the Community Development Department and Lisa Lindsay and Richard Lightfoot, who are in charge of the facilities at the Fairgrounds. Everyone is exceptional and great to work with.

It’s small town, it’s not slick like Madison Square Gardens, but it’s lovely, and everything seems to be possible. People here make the logistics, the mechanical aspects of mounting an event easy. The wineries are supportive, the breweries, the two cheese-makers, and we can draw on County residents for all the volunteers we need. I think some volunteers are getting volunteered out, because so many things are happening now, but we do attract people and they come back year after year.

It’s great that Toronto is two hours away, Montreal three hours, Kingston one hour – but it’s not all wine and cheese and roses. It’s still a challenge to get people to drive the distance to an event, pay admission, enjoy it and drive back again or fork out to stay overnight. It limits numbers. We get about 5,000 people and you know we’d get 10,000 or more in Toronto – but it wouldn’t be the same. Our cheese makers and the small specialty food producers who bring honey and charcuterie and everything, they love coming here. If people could just jump on a subway we’d get more at the show. But I don’t want to do an artisan cheese festival in a big city.”

Georgs says festival goers already know about Prince Edward County – but that wasn’t always the case. “In 2011 a lot of people had to figure out where Prince Edward County was so they could get to the show. I stayed with Jane Churchill at her bed and breakfast for the first few years. Now I’m bringing a team of 20 or 30 people we stay at Picton Harbour Inn. It’s a great place and we can walk to work. Jane does a lot of our graphic design now. That’s how The County works,” he smiles. Do other places try to get him to move the festival? “Of course,” he says. “But there’s a lot of things going for The County, a lot of very good reasons to keep it right here.” He considers for a minute. “Okay, sometimes the small town-ness of it can be frustrating, like when I’ve left it too late to order pizza for 30 people! What do you mean you’re closed at 5pm!? But overall, it’s the perfect place for us.”

FUTURE PLANS

“We want to keep people coming back, attract new people. We’re still the only place to see and sample a large selection of Canadian cheese in one place. We had our growth spurt in the first two years going from one to two days, and we grow steadily about 5% to 10% each year. We don’t spend a fortune on advertising, but our reputation grows, and The County’s profile as a destination grows every year, so we’re getting stronger together and individually.”

What’s new in 2017?

“We’re giving cheese away,” he laughs. “People love free stuff! Last year it was cheese curds, but this year we want to expose the public to beautiful Raw Milk Cheeses, unpasteurized and, technically not even thermalized. There is a lot of raw milk cheese being made in Quebec. I call it pure milk and it’s the way God intended cheese to be. The first 1,000 people through the door will get a 100g packet of Le Pionnier, a beautiful cheese made by a collaboration of two producers in Quebec. Then there is Gouda Day, featuring an Albertan cheese that’s judged the best gouda in Canada. Come on, it’s all about cheese. That’s why people come. We are promoting a number of younger cheese-makers with profiles on social media, partly to pull in more of the millennium crowd but also because they deserve a helping hand. We established a bursary with the help of a young cheese sommelier in Ottawa, Vanessa Simmons, to bring at least one young producer to the show with all their travel, accommodation and everything covered. The festival is evolving. Last year we had 40 cheese-makers from across the country, this year it’s thirty something but with a lot more specialty foods, from charcuterie to honey to cutting boards. The first year we had about 15 artisan food people, this year there are more than the cheese-makers! But that’s good. More than 30 Canadian cheese makers is a hell of a lot more than Lin and I ever saw at those shows eight years ago. We’ve also got wineries, breweries and cideries taking part, and this year the County distillery. It’s changing, but cheese is still the heart and it will be as long as it’s The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.”

Georgs is delighted to host Canadian foods, too. “I love charcuterie. I never met a sausage I didn’t like! Mike McKenzie from Seed to Sausage will be right over there in that corner again with his lineup out the door and a round the corner (the Blockbuster of the Crystal Palace). He is such a wonderful guy and does so much to help young people coming up. Between you and me he’ll have more competition this year, but I think Mike will be just fine with that. It’s a great show. It’s The Great Canadian Cheese Festival.”

If you love artisan cheese and specialty foods, you’ll love the seventh annual Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton on June 3-4. Build a New Life readers, can receive a  special discount of 10% off the cost of admission. Simply enter the code CF17LIFE before purchasing tickets online HERE.

Close to 500 different artisan and farmstead cheeses, fine foods and adult beverages will be on offer at what has become the biggest artisan foods show in Canada. Learn more at CheeseFestival.ca