Article Written by Denise Davy
Shep Ysselstein is crazy busy. In between slapping labels onto lids of cheese curd containers, he rushes over to the counter to ring in orders from customers. It’s Friday – his busiest day – because people know the cheese curds are fresh. Ysselstein is a youthful-looking 31 year old. He’s the eldest of five brothers who grew up on the family’s dairy farm next door. Two years ago, after training in the Swiss Alps, New York and BC, he launched himself into the world of artisan cheese making, then founded Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheeses in Oxford County, named after the road that takes me to his farm.
He has kept his business in the family, using milk from the family’s dairy farm, Friesvale Farms, and has already earned a name for himself, winning the Entrepreneur award from the local Chamber of Commerce in 2012. The unassuming building which houses his cheese factory is one of 14 stops along Oxford’s Cheese Trail. (Oxford County straddles the 401 between Kitchener-Waterloo and London). To fully immerse myself in the ambience of the county, I started with an overnight stay at the elegant Elm Hurst Inn and Spa. This historic home in Ingersoll was built by cheese monger, James Harris. Although it has undergone renovations, its heritage and 1800’s charm remains.
Cheese has played a huge role in the settlement of this county, and it’s still known as the dairy capital of Canada to this day. It seemed only fitting then that I start my tour with a visit to the Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum. There’s a replica 19th century cheese factory as well as photos of Harris’s famous 7,300-pound wheel of cheese, which he made specifically to put Ingersoll on the map. This famous wheel of cheese was rolled its way to exhibitions in Toronto, New York, Paris and London.
The Oxford County Museum School (same location) was my next stop, complete with old wooden school desks to replicate the historic classroom. Then it was onto Patina’s Gifts of Art and Craft, where I found an eclectic array of whimsical pieces, from teapot-shaped clocks to jewelry, pottery and glass made by locals and artisans from across Canada.
Next on the itinerary was Jakeman’s Maple Farm, an old country store filled to the rafters with goodies made from maple syrup. It was a beautiful spot that’s apparently even more picturesque in early spring when the trilliums are in full bloom in the aptly named Trillium Woods across the street. I refueled at Dean Michael’s Griddlehouse with a delicious cheese (of course!) and broccoli crepe then ended my tour at Ysselstein’s factory. Cathy Bingham, tourism specialist for Oxford County, said visitors can create and coordinate their own cheese tour online or, if they want a more personal touch, they can contact chef and TV personality Jed Lau, who will readily plan a guided tour.
As I drove from place to place on the cheese trail, one thing became clear: each place had its own charm but the fun was also in the journey. Travelling to each destination meant driving down winding country roads past miles of rolling landscape and storybook farms. It was as natural a relaxant as a calming cup of chamomile tea and a great way to spend a weekend.
Gunn’s Hill Cheese
Elm Hurst Inn and Spa
Chef Jed Lau (for personal tour planning)