Here are two things you need to know about Jeff Nonay, a third-generation dairy farmer in Alberta. He enjoys a cup of chaga tea. He has a passion for cheese.
Three years ago, Lakeside Dairy, a thriving dairy, beef and potato operation 30 minutes north of Edmonton owned by Nonay and his partner, Coralee, expanded into producing cheese. The Nonays hired Ian Treuer to, firstly, lead-hand the design of the cheese plant and, then, to become the head cheesemaker at Lakeside Farmstead.
One day Jeff asked Ian whether a cheddar infused with chaga, a type of fungus that grows on Alberta birch trees, might be worth developing.
After some trial and error, the first Chaga Cheddar in Canada—indeed, in the world—came to be.
After soaking in a bath of chaga tea, cheddar curds are molded, pressed and aged for up to seven weeks. The resulting cheese is beautifully marbled and has a creamy texture and mild, nutty flavour.
Says Jeff: “We soak our curds in a chaga tea, imparting flavours of smoke, sweetness, earthiness. The brewing tea fills the room with smells of being around a campfire. While the cheddar and chaga flavours meld together, the texture quickly becomes creamy and smooth. The outside of the curd stains with the rich dark tea and makes for a spectacular looking cheese.”
Adds Ian: “Our chaga cheddar has an interesting flavour. You get the mild to medium cheddar flavour, but the chaga imparts an almost smoky, caramel/dark chocolate flavour.”
Chaga’s most noted accolade is its antioxidant power, according to Untamed Feast, the local experts who source the sustainably harvested chaga used by Lakeside. Chaga is also nutrient dense, containing the B vitamin complex, vitamin D, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium, calcium. Chaga is used to balance blood sugar and blood pressure, to purify the liver, to relieve pain, to modulate the immune system and as an overall tonic.
The cheese produced at Lakeside is truly “farmstead” in that milk comes solely from the dairy barn a mere 200 feet/60 metres from the cheese plant.
Adds Treuer: “The cows have a nutritionist that designs their feed. And that, to me, makes it a better milk to use.”
In addition to Chaga Cheddar, Lakeside produces Cheddar, Clothbound Cheddar, Butter Cheese, Brie, Alpine Cheese, Fromage Blanc, Cheese Curds, Cottage Cheese and Cultured Butter. The cheese is available only in Alberta at present, from selected cheese shops and a retail store at the farm open Wednesday through Saturday.
Ian Treuer first started making cheese at home more than a decade ago: “I was looking for a hobby and it was that or make beer—and I don’t really drink.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing at first.
“That first cheese was a hockey puck. It was hard . . . but I was determined to eat it,” Treuer said.
Treuer kept working at it, which eventually led to teaching classes and working at smaller cheese operations. Then, in 2019, he was asked to become the head cheesemaker at Lakeside Dairy.
“I spent 20 years in another career and then the opportunity to work in cheese kind of arose. I have a very understanding and supportive wife, who allowed me to leave a really good job to pursue cheese.”
Treuer calls the process of making cheese his happy place. He says no cheese is identical, as the result is influenced by the subtle differences in each batch of milk.
Lakeside Dairy owner Jeff Nonay is known in the Edmonton food scene for his beef. He says that helped get his foot in the door of local restaurants and retailers and on the minds of consumers but his ultimate goal was to add cheese to his offerings.
“It was produced only 200 feet away on our dairy farm, where it all started, and transformed here to something consumers can really wrap their taste buds around,” Nonay said.
Nonay has had cheddar on the brain for a decade, after visiting a Québec dairy farm with its own cheese plant on site.
Five years ago, a devastating fire gutted a barn and killed 140 cows at the farm that has been in operation for decades.
“We lost a building, we lost animals and we needed to make decisions on what that meant on the farm,” Nonay said.
He said the fire was a fork in the road: a chance to look at what was lost and make decisions on other ways to run the business—and that included making cheese.
After Nonay rebuilt the barn, he started construction on the cheese plant.
“I could see in Québec (at Fromagerie du Presbytère) how it was done, and what we needed to do,” Nonay said but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down.
Like aging cheese, patience is key. Nonay kept pushing, had the plant completed and began making cheese with Treuer in charge of production.
Nonay and Treuer have come up with a new flavour made from a type of fungus that is often found growing on birch trees in Alberta forests.
The world’s first chaga cheese has a fairly mild taste with a slight nutty flavour.
“It’s truly amazing, where we have been able to come up with something unique in the world of cheese,” Treuer said.
These days Ian Treuer’s daily commute is a short one: a mere 100 steps separate his residence and jobsite at Lakeside Farmstead.
After tasting, testing and tweaking recipes for nearly a year, Lakeside Farmstead’s first cheese product, fresh curds, landed on store shelves in October, 2020.
The issue of milk sourcing is important. This is single-herd cheese, and just like single estate in the world of wine, the singleness of the raw product speaks to terroir (French for taste of place) and the very essence of the product. The taste, the smell and the texture of the cheese is not only a result of Treuer’s fine-tuning, but also because of what the animals are fed and how they’re raised.
While Ian Treuer turns milk into cheese, and Jeff Nonay tends to all aspects of farm life, including turning manure into compost, the dairy barn team ensures the cows receive the best food and care in a clean, low-stress working environment.
Lakeside milks 160 cows and finishes more than 150 beef animals a year.
“Sometimes I ask myself if I’m crazy to be doing all of this,” Nonay says. “Though when I look back, sitting in a rocking chair years from now, I want to think that the cheese is probably the coolest thing we did with our ability.”
The cheese idea sprouted after a young man from Québec came to the farm as part of an agricultural placement project for his education. “He had a backpack with a guitar, some maple butter and a block of amazing cheese inside,” says Nonay recalling the student’s arrival. The cheese was award-winning Louis d’Or, a Canadian classic.
When the placement ended and the young man returned to Québec, Jeff received a thank you note from his father, who, as it turned out, was Jean Morin, a fourth generation dairy farmer and the highly respected cheesemaker at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick east of Montréal, maker of Louis d’Or and other award-winning cheeses.
Over the years, a friendship between the Alberta farmer and the Québécois fromager blossomed, and with that friendship, visits to Morin’s facility and an introduction into cheesemaking. Two of Jean Morin’s sons, first Charles, then Alexis, completed their placement at the Nonay farm.
“Everything Jean did spoke to my soul,” Jeff Nonay says, inspired not only by the creative process but by the enjoyment he witnessed from Morin involving the small community in his work at the church-turned-cheesiry, for in Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, those who make cheese together, eat, drink and rejoice together, too.
Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, has never met a cheese he didn’t like . . . well, hardly ever. Follow him on on his travels across Canada on Substack at On the Road, Across the Sea.