On Top of the Cheese World

By / Food / November 12th, 2010 / 1

Our worldwide reputation is well known in hockey circles. We’re at the very top. Well, Canadians, take pride that we’re on the top rung of the world’s cheese ladder, too! When people think of cheese, their minds normally drift to France and Switzerland, Italy and Spain. But sitting right at the top of the current list is Canada. Le Cendrillon (the Cinderella), a semi-soft ash-covered goat’s milk cheese just won first prize at the equivalent of the world’s cheese Olympics. No minor feat: the top position in the 2009 World Cheese Awards competition included more than 2400 entrants from 34 countries. Located about 50 km from Quebec City, this sensational producer, La Maison Alexis de Portneuf, showed the food world that we deserve to rank at the top.

“Whatever the lovers of pâte cuite, lait cru and d’affinages fermiers may think, the best cheese in the world is not French, but Canadian,” reported Le Parisien, France’s widely read newspaper.

The message, to the international community, Quebecers and indeed all Canadians, is that we produce cheese that are equal in style, taste and overall quality with any other important producer in the world. And you may ask, is this an exceptional situation? The answer is no, because of the explosion of cheeses that have increasingly been reaching across the local market for approximately 15 years now. The story is fascinating.

For decades, the dairy industry had been rather static. Farmers limited by a specific quota system produced milk — primarily cow’s milk — and sold it through cooperatives to retail outlets, usually locally within their own province. These traditional old-style dairies stayed still while the younger generation left the family farm for work in the city.

But it’s not a new thing. Going back 100 years there were a small number of cheese producers; one could say almost a handful. But one day a dairy farmer figured out that if you obtain a modest amount of modern equipment, you can “vertically integrate” by producing cheese. Result? Graduate from marginal farming to a more profitable enterprise. So, a few people did this and sold locally. Indeed, how could you compete with cheese shops in the big urban areas where imported products filled the shelves?

But Canadians know a good thing when they taste it, and gradually local cheeses began to reach a few shelves. We’re talking about a huge range of unique, and importantly, unpasteurized cheeses that offer the same intensity of taste and breadth of flavour that cheese lovers had been enjoying from imports.

As always, it takes a few visionaries to develop and capitalize on a good idea. One of the best examples in all of Canada is Les Fromages Atwater, a cheese mecca located at a large farmer’s market in Montreal. To talk to Gilles Jourdenais is to enjoy unabashed enthusiasm from a man who, in 27 years, has built an establishment that used to offer 25 cheeses (sold by six employees) to a superlative outlet with 850 choices (and 62 employees).

How this happened is a classic success story. Farmer A eking out a living with his dairy farm noticed one day, inevitably, that his neighbour was producing cheese from part of his dairy produce. A visit to a cheese retailer in Montreal showed that there was clearly a demand for new products, particularly those that were fresher than the imports that had to have at least 60 days age before they could be sold across the counter. And, with the increasingly sophisticated consumer, it was obvious that making unpasteurized cheese (lait cru) presented a whole new market. While this encouraged new producers, it also helped attract more of the younger generation to the family dairy-and-cheese business and reversing the trend of youngsters leaving farms for life in the city.

Gilles often entertains small dairy farmers who come to his shop to inquire about the kind of new products that can establish success not only in his store, but throughout the province. It is, of course, in Gilles’ interest to be helpful, since more newly-styled cheeses make the overall choice bigger, which pleases the client, pleases the producer, and naturally delights Les Fromages Atwater. And he’ll tell you too how often Quebecers who travel in Europe come back with inquiries about “this fabulous cheese I ate called XYZ. Can we get it or something similar here?” Of course the range has exploded.

This explosion is only about 15 years old. Consider what “Made In Canada” meant in 1990 or so. There was Oka from Quebec, and a range of cheddar cheeses from Ontario. With a few exceptions, that was pretty much it. At the same time, France, with a centuries-old tradition of cheese making, offered approximately 350 choices, sold not only across their own country but elsewhere in Europe and North America. The number 350 is particularly significant since more than 50 years ago, General de Gaulle, then president of France, remarked how impossible it was to govern a country where independent minded Frenchman produced more than 350 cheeses.

Today it is astonishing to report that Quebec alone produces a range of 350 different varieties of cheese. And they run the gamut in terms of style. There’s a huge range of lait cru (unpasteurized), not only in cow’s milk but also cheeses made of goat’s and sheep’s milk. And since the yield with cow’s milk cheese is double that of goat or sheep, there is also a huge range of mixed cheeses, combining 50% cow’s and 50% goat’s or sheep’s milk. The delicious result is an even broader range of choices.

Everyone is a winner: the consumer who enjoys a vast range of products, the retailer whose selection continues to grow, and the dairy farmer/cheese producer who finds a bigger and bigger market for his output.

It is interesting to note some distinct regional preferences in style of cheese available. In Ontario, flavoured cheeses are popular, and in the better stores you’ll find a range of products where cranberries or basil and fines herbes have been added — mixed in with the pure fresh cheese. Local Gouda style cheese with caraway is delightful, if only popular in Ontario. In Quebec, however, flavoured cheeses are not very popular, although there are products like Gaperon, which has a distinct flavour, mixing garlic and pepper. Ontario also produces Brie and Camembert styles, bringing fresher, more intense flavours than the mandatorily-aged products from France.

There is even a solution for people who continue to fear unpasteurized cheese. Since the pasteurized varieties tend to lack intensity of flavour because of the effect of super-heating the milk during the production process, Canadian producers have adopted a process called thermisee, which is a method of heating the milk but not to the boiling point. It is a method adapted from rules established in the European Union.

So, treat yourself to a visit and a tasting at your cheesemonger. You will find outstanding choices, some of them available on a seasonal basis. Caccia di Fossa, for example, comes from a farm with 100 sheep where the cheese is aged underground from April to November — the resultant earthy taste is a great example of how Quebec is trying new things. You’ll also find La Neige, an improvement over the herb-covered Corsican “La Broccia.”

Local producers who followed the tendency of copycatting Europe learned quickly that if everybody made the same style cheese, there wouldn’t be enough business to go around. That is why so many are now experimenting with astonishing new tastes and styles. For example, on a visit to almost any cheese store in the past 25 years, you would find the inevitable French Banon, a small round goat’s cheese, wrapped in vine leaves, from the western part of Provence. But today, there is a locally produced wonder called Cabanon (French for a cabin in the woods) that is a sheep’s milk cheese wrapped in Canadian oak leaves. It’s a delicious example of how a local producer can adapt and improve a product from the Old World, producing something distinctly Canadian. It is a further example of how the Banon, which reaches approximately 70 million cheese lovers across Europe, can be adapted (and improved?) through Cabanon, to a local market one tenth the size.

And so, justifiably, Canadians can talk up the world-class chesses that we are making in increasing variety and quantity. There is more to our national pride than hockey!

Cheese & Wine

Le Cendrillon: (Good acidity)
Chardonnay without oak: E.g. Louis Latour “Ardeche”
Sauvignon Blanc

La Neige: (Good acidity)
Aligoté, Burgundy, France
Le Cabanon: Cotes-de-Beaune or Cote-de-Beaunes Villages, France
Pinot Noir, Louis Latour, Burgundy, France

Caccia di Fossa:
Chianti, Tuscany: E.g. Rufino Castello di Nippozzano
Earthy Shiraz, New South Wales, Australia

Brie or Camembert : Champagne or Prosecco or Sparkling Vouvray
Gouda:  German Riesling
Goat Cheeses:  Loire Valley wines
Mild and medium Cheddar:  Chardonnay
Strong Cheddar:  Shiraz  or Cabernet Sauvignon
Blue cheeses:  Sauternes or Gewürtzraminer


Looking at the small things that make life great and the people who create them.

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