Quebec; 400 years of cheese making

Quebecers can get a taste of this proud industry by heading out on the road to visit the province’s welcoming farms

By Josh Rubin, Special to The Gazette August 23, 2012, Via Montreal Gazette

Kevin Michaud, who works at Fromagerie La Station in Compton, cleans the rinds of aging cheese. The farm has been home to four generations of the Bolduc family.
Photograph by: Vincenzo D’Alto , The Gazette

Twenty years ago if you said “cheese,” Quebec wouldn’t have leaped to mind. Quebec and maple syrup, yes. Although the province produces three-quarters of the world’s supply of maple syrup, the sweet stuff pours only about $145 million a year into the Canadian economy. Cheese, on the other hand, is a major slice of the billion-dollar dairy industry.

Long overlooked, cheesemaking in Quebec dates back 400 years, when the inhabitants of what was then New France produced all sorts of cheeses in their homes. After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, however, farmers started making cheddar for export to Britain. Consequently, Quebec became famous for its cheddar and for Oka, a cheese that originated in the late 1800s when a group of Trappist monks settled in Quebec after being expelled from their native France.

“It’s kind of come full circle. In the last 15 years, there’s been this resurgence of artisanal cheesemakers,” says Amélie Tendland, the author of Fromages: 100 produits du Québec à découvrir.

The number of Quebec cheese farms rose to 52 by 2010 from 29 in 1998, according to the Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec. The province manufactures 51 per cent of all Canadian cheese.

Quebec has become a cheese aficionado’s dream come true, and it has never been easier to go to the source of all that great cheese, meet its makers, and see how it’s done. The circuit called the Route gourmande des fromages fins du Québec has been helping the curious discover cheese farms in 14 provincial regions since 1999. More than 300 varieties of cheese are produced by Quebec farms, meaning — just in terms of sheer volume — you’ll probably be exploring uncharted territory.

Some of the province’s most celebrated cheesemakers are less than an hour’s drive from Montreal. If you wanted to make an easy day of it, you could start here:

Fromagerie Ruban Bleu in Mercier: Only 25 minutes from downtown, this picturesque farm is known for its varieties of goat cheese.

“We were both very passionate about cheese and goats. All of a sudden in 2005, we saw this farm for sale and we just got crazy about it, so we decided to buy it. It wasn’t really rational and we didn’t really think about it, it was like a coup de coeur,” Caroline Tardif said.

“We made an offer, but it was conditional that we do some volunteer work until the end of the year so that we could learn the trade,” she added.

Tardif and her husband, Jean-François Hébert, have been living on the farm ever since. One of their most popular cheeses is Le Charbonnier, which is sprinkled with ground ash from pine trees found in the Maritimes.

“The ash helps give the cheese a milder taste and makes it less acidic,” Tardif said.

Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs: From there, head east to Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs near St. Jean sur Richelieu. Daniel Gosselin grew up on the farm, which his father purchased in 1950. For decades, they produced only milk. However, in 1999, economics eventually steered Gosselin and his wife, Suzanne Dufresne, toward cheese.

Au Gré des Champs has the rather esthetic translation of “to the whim of the fields.” As the name implies, all of the cheese produced by the farm is certified organic. Only a handful of Quebec cheesemakers bear such a designation. Rarer still is the farm’s use of lait cru, or unpasteurized milk. While extremely popular among some of the most renowned European cheesemakers, it was only in 2008 that Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to legalize the use of lait cru for cheese production, albeit with strict regulations.

“We plant a variety of wildflowers and culinary herbs in the pastures for the cows to eat with the intention of recreating what you would find in alpine regions,” farmhand Stephan Massad said.

By forgoing the pasteurization process, unique bacteria make their way into the milk and subsequently provide the cheese with a distinct floral flavour.

The cows themselves are unique as well. Whereas most herds in Quebec comprise Holsteins — i.e., your typical black and white cow — Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs has the breed Brown Swiss. Compared to Holsteins, milk from Brown Swiss has a higher fat content and contains more protein. It is thus better suited for the production of cheese.

Before leaving, make sure to sample their D’Iberville and Gré des Champs cheeses. The latter is a great substitute for gruyère and can be used in onion soup.

Ferme Mes Petits Caprices: Located in St. Jean Baptiste near the base of Mont St. Hilaire, this is such a small farm that it’s difficult to find any of its cheeses on store shelves in Montreal because it is sold only at neighbouring markets.

Be sure to try the award-winning goat cheese Le Capri’cieux, made from the milk of purebred Alpine goats and infused with almonds, fine herbs and pear.

“Alpine goats produce gentler milk than other breeds and their milk is very versatile. We use it to make a wide variety of cheeses, for example, Camembert or mozzarella or Tomme. The taste can also be either strong or mild,” said co-owner Charles Boulerice, whose farm also produces organic blueberries and honey.

Fromagerie La Station in Compton: This is the farthest farm of this grouping. Its cluster of farmhouses sits neatly perched upon majestic, manicured pastures and sport uniform sun-bleached orange wood sidings. It’s like stepping into an artist’s canvas.

Sitting on 163 hectares of farmland, Fromagerie La Station was inaugurated by the Bolducs in 2004.

The farm has been home to four generations of Bolducs, an agricultural family with a presence in Compton since 1929.

“Alfred was my great-grandfather, who was the first Bolduc to live on this farm, so naturally we created Alfred le Fermier (cheese) in his memory,” Martin Bolduc said. “The name also refers to the fact that he was a farmer, which to us means that our cheeses are all made from milk produced by a single herd.”

The beautiful landscape and numerous awards the cheese has won make Fromagerie La Station a popular destination. You will need to call ahead to reserve a spot on one of the guided tours.

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