Among the happy overlaps between French and British cultures, which have historically sparred in Canada, is an abiding love of cheese. In the 19th century, the Quebecois fondness for soft, ripened cheeses and the British affection for hard, sharp cheddar inspired the opening of hundreds of cheese factories across the country. By 1901, the nation's first dairy school was manufacturing feta, although nobody much liked it.
"While the experiment was a success, it seems no one wanted to eat the results, which were considered too exotic for the tame palates of the day," recounts the Dairy Farmers of Canada's official history.
Canadian cheese lovers have since grown braver. The more than 1000 different cheeses currently produced north of the border include runny goat cheeses; sheep's milk cheese marinated in olive oil; blue-veined cow's milk cheeses and soft, mozzarella-style buffalo's milk cheeses. For eaters interested in sampling them, Vancouver is a fine place to start. Here, an overview of three cheese specialists in a city long past snubbing feta.
Among the first upscale tenants of Blood Alley, a Gastown side street named for the violent mayhem which enveloped the neighborhood in the city's early years, Salt Tasting Room is a studiously chic artisanal meat-and-cheese lair. The six-year old restaurant swept up a bushel of design awards when it opened, and the spare, brick-walled room is still impressive. Salt serves wine, cheese, charcuterie and condiments, leaving it up to diners to craft their own jumbles.
A prearranged "Best of BC" plate featured only one cheese on a recent visit - Salt's current 10-cheese menu is dominated by imports - but a pair of local meats was terrific. The faint sweetness and acid of an Okanagan gamay rose was the ideal foil for a fatty smoked pork and tender, flavorful corned beef from Mike Vitow, the former New York cabbie who now cures Alberta beef briskets.
Food carts are fairly new to Vancouver, but the city already has two grilled cheese carts. Visitors to Seattle are likely to have an easier time finding Taser, since it spends weekdays parked at the foot of the stairs leading to the SkyTrain from the Amtrak terminal. Taser -- which started grilling last year -- inserts chicken and apples in its poshest sandwiches, but also sells a bare-bones version on sourdough bread for $3. It's a firm sandwich, which is handy should you need to slip it into your pocket while buying a train ticket. The aged cheddar is local, but the overriding flavor comes from the crushed red pepper flakes sprinkled atop it.
The three-year old Au Petit Chavignol is the dining offshoot of Les Amis du Fromage, a leading cheese shop that stocks more than 150 British Columbia cheeses. At Les Amis, the cheeses are lined up neatly in display cases. But over at Au Petit Chavignol, the cheeses are gleefully applied to burgers; grilled on bread; melted in fondue pots and tossed with macaroni. And the non-cheese ingredients are stellar: Check out the yolk on the fleshy fried egg atop this croque madame, a rich, bubbly slab of warmth that makes a mockery of every lunchbox ham-and-cheese. It's an incredible lunch.