Looking forward to Bra, and a long ways back to Oka

On the eve of departure for Italy and Cheese 2011 at Bra—the most important cheese festival in Europe—I’m meditating on an extraordinary washed-rind cheese made by Trappist monks in Manitoba. As you can see, there’s only a small wedge left of the cheese made according to the recipe once used by Trappist at Oka Abbey to make Oka—quite possibly the most famous Canadian cheese of all.

Trappist cheese from Manitoba.

The cheese from Our Lady of the Prairies Abbey is saltier, earthier, with a depth of flavours not found in the Oka manufactured today by Agropur, the largest dairy co-operative in Canada, which acquired the name from the Trappist monks in 1996, 10 years before they sold the monastery.

But the Trappists never sold the actual recipe—or a notebook full of notes, observations and how-to instructions dating back to 1893, the year Oka was first made in the monastery on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montréal. That notebook now is in the possession of Brother Albéric, the 72-year-old monk who is the master cheesemaker at the monastery in Holland, Manitoba.

I remember full well my first taste of Oka at Oka almost 50 years ago. Somehow, I, a Lutheran, ended up in the guest house of the most Roman Catholic of monastic orders the week after dropping out of university. On my first morning at Oka, I found myself is a small dining room with a few other guests at a large table. In the center was what looked like a large platter of big chunks of pineapple.

Pineapple? It didn’t seem right to me, so, despite the rule of silence, I whispered to the man next to me, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” To which he replied in one hushed word: “Fromage.”

“Ah, cheese, I can go for that, ” I said to myself as I reached for a considerable chunk and popped it into my waiting mouth. Epiphany is the only way to describe what I tasted. In a word, it was divine.

And so it came to pass that my lifelong passion for artisan cheese was ignited . . . which has lead me to this evening, looking forward to Bra—and looking a long ways back to that morning in Oka.

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheese-head-in chief at CheeseLover.ca, serves of director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Of course, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in purgatory of getting Brother Albéric to the 2012 Festival, but hope and faith spring eternal.