Flashback to November, 1960, Deux Montagnes, Québec:
A young monk entered the guesthouse dining room at Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac bearing a large platter. He gently placed it in the centre of the table where eight of us were sitting. The platter appeared to be piled high with big chunks of pale yellow pineapple.
Pineapple in the middle of November in a Trappist monastery in Québec? I was mystified. Despite the no-talking rule, I turned to the man on my left and whispered: “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
“Fromage” was his curt reply, followed by “Ssshhhh!”
Fromage? I could handle cheese first thing in the morning, my first morning as a guest at the monastery. After the blessing and signal to begin eating, I didn’t hesitate to reach for a big chunk and popped it in my mouth.
“Oh, my goodness!” I could hardly hold back exclaiming out loud. I had never tasted a cheese so buttery, so creamy, so delicious. So many more chunks followed the first that I hardly had room for the farm-fresh scrambled eggs that were served for breakfast.
And so it came to pass that I was introduced to Oka cheese when the Trappists still made it. Indeed, that morning was the moment my passion for artisan cheese was ignited.
Flashback further, to February, 1893:
Brother Alphonse Juin arrives at the Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac—known as Oka Abbey after the small village on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, northwest of Montreal, on Lake of Two Mountains, where the Ottawa has its confluence with the St. Lawrence River.
The monastery was struggling, unable to make ends meet. Brother Alphonse had been sent from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine in France (from which the Oka monks originated) with a recipe for Port-du-Salut cheese created by Trappists a few years earlier. Brother Alphonse tweaked and adjusted Port-du-Salut recipe, creating a unique Quebec cheese that went on to win first prize at the Montreal Exhibition that same year.
Imagine the shock of judges at the exhibition to be presented with a unique semi-soft, washed-rind cheese when only cheddars ruled the day!
The Oka Trappist cheese continued to win awards and recognition. Soon, it became immensely popular, assuring the financial stability of the monastery. Today, it’s clearly the most iconic of all Canadian cheeses, known the world over.
Fast forward to 1981:
Agropur, Canada’s biggest dairy co-operative purchases the Oka cheesemaking operation from the Trappist monks and builds a state-of-the-art plant next door to the monastery. Eventually, an expansive retail store is opened, showcasing Oka cheeses and artisan products from across Québec. (Which makes a visit to Oka really worth your while.)
Over time, the product line is expanded beyond the original Oka cheese to include Oka Classique, Light, Raclette, L’Artisan, L’Artisan Smoke, Mushrooms, Ashed and Brother Alphonse.
The original Oka with the somewhat plain label remains my favourite and is closest to what I recall first tasting so many years ago.
Fast forward to October, 2006:
The monks, by now world-famous, announce they are selling Oka Abbey and moving to a smaller home in the forest 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
A local non-profit group will transform the monastery into a tourism and education centre. The Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac includes a large grey stone monastery and a dozen buildings nestled on 270 hectares of forested land. The monks also own farmland.
Thousands of people from around the world have visited the abbey to attend mass, meditate and enjoy the bucolic peace and quiet. The abbey has long welcomed men and women seeking short-term retreats, and also runs a monastic guest program for men interested in experiencing monastic life.
At its peak, the abbey was the permanent home to as many as 200 monks, who belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists. But the community has dwindled over the past generation, and only 28 monks, the majority of whom are older than 70, live at the monastery.
Fast forward to today:
Oka is semi-soft, washed-rind cheese with an edible copper-orange rind. It has a distinct aroma—some might call it pungent, especially as the cheese ages—and a relatively mild, creamy and buttery flavour.
My tasting notes say: Creamy and sweet. Nice touch of umami. Hints of mushrooms and nuts. Velvety and supple mouthfeel.
While Oka was once made from raw milk fresh from the abbey’s farm, today it’s made from pasteurized milk. Master cheesemakers used to wash the wheels with brine by hand to promote proper aging. These days, the process is facilitated by machines that allow for a more homogenous production and limit rind contamination.
The secret to the flavour and iconic aroma lies in the complex microbiology of the rind, found only in the cellars of the former monastery. The cheese is made in a state-of-the-art plant next door but still aged in the old monastery cellars.
Meanwhile, deepin the forest northeast of Montreal:
When the Trappists left Oka to escape suburban sprawl, they left behind an oversized, aging building. Their new Trappist abbey, L’Abbaye Val Notre-Dame, nested in the forests and rolling hills of the Lanaudiere region and known for its cutting-edge ecological architecture, has been heralded as the 21st-century monastery. But, more importantly, it has become pivotal in the monks’ sweeping spiritual renewal.
Moving here has made the Trappists rethink their relationship with their environment, as the community must earn its living from manual work. It’s no longer possible to take care of 3,000 apple trees or 2,500 sugar maples like they used to do in Oka. The monks have instead learned to tap the nurturing powers of the surrounding 187-acre forest.
Meanwhile, out in Manitoba, the Oka story takes a twist:
In their own way, Winnipeg chefs Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak are continuing the Oka tradition with the recipe that was entrusted to Brother Alberic at Our Lady of the Prairies Monastery at Holland, Manitoba, and he in turn passed it on to the chefs after training Dustin in cheesemaking.
His Louis d’Or is Grand Champion in the cow’s milk variety cheese class. Pionnier, made with a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk in collaboration with Marie-Chantal Houde of Fromagerie Nouvelle France, is Grand Champion in the goat and sheep milk variety cheese class.
The 18-month Farmstead Gouda made by Adam van Bergejik of Mountainoak Cheese is Reserve Grand Champion in cow milk.
Lindsay Bandaged Goat Cheddar made by Pieter van Oudenaren of Lenberg Farms/Mariposa Dairy is Reserve Grand Champion in goat and sheep milk.
Grand Champion in cheddar cheese is Black Diamond Mild Cheddar made by Parmalat Canada, now part of Groupe Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy producer. Parmalat dominated all cheddar categories except:
Even though it was up against Canadian cheese giant Agropur, Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op won two firsts, two seconds and two thirds in the cheddar competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair—the best showing by an artisan producer. In fact, Empire’s Mild Cheddar was named Reserve Grand Champion in the judging, runner-up to Agropur Grand Cheddar 2 Year.
The Campbellford, Ontario, cheese producer, where Mark Erwin is the cheesemaker, took the following honours:
Empire Mild Cheddar – Reserve Grand Champion
Empire Mild Cheddar – First in class, Mild Cheddar 2-4 months
Empire Extra Mature Cheddar – First in class, Extra Mature Cheddar
Empire Medium Cheddar – Second in class, Medium Cheddar 6-8 months
Empire Extra Mild Cheddar – Second in class, Extra Mild Cheddar 1-2 months
Empire Marble Cheddar – Third in class, Marble Cheddar any age
Empire Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Third in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar.
Maple Dale Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Second in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar
Maple Dale 2 year – Third in class, Extra Mature Cheddar.
Ivanhoe Cheese of Madoc, Ontario, won second in the Extra Mature Cheddar class with Ivanhoe Classic Cheddar made May 15, 2011.
Four of the seven cheddar classes were won by Agropur, one of Canada’s biggest co-operatives owned by 3,400 dairy farmers. Among its 15 dairy divisions is Oka, Canada’s iconic cheese brand that dates back to 1893 when Trappists made it.
Canadian cheesemakers won 30 ribbons in the 2013 American Cheese Society Judging & Competition in Madison, Wisconsin, in early August, competing against 1,794 cheeses submitted by 257 producers in the Americas—the largest competition in the history of the ACS.
Twenty-three of the 30 ribbons were won by 10 Québec cheesemakers, four being first-place ribbons, two for Agropur Fine Cheese and one each for Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser, represented by Fromages CDA, and La Moutonnière.
Two Ontario producers, Mariposa Dairy, represented by Finica Food Specialties, and Quality Cheese, won first-place ribbons as well.
Best of Show was won by Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont with the Winnimere, an extraordinary take on the French mountain classic Vachering Mont d’Or. Made with raw milk from the farm’s Ayrshire cows, Winnimere is wrapped in cambium cut from the spruce trees on the farm and washed in a beer from a neighbouring brewery. It’s available only January through June.
Here are the Canadian winners:
OPEN CATEGORY – FRESH UNRIPENED CHEESES – MADE FROM SHEEP’S MILK OR MIXED MILKS
I enjoy eating cheese from around the world but my passion is for fromages fins, artisan cheese made in Canada. When I hear someone praising an imported cheese to high heaven, my immediate reaction is: What do Canadian cheesemakers produce that is just as tasty, if not superior?
A wedge of Riopelle reveals a creamy and incredibly smooth centre beneath a thin, bloomy rind. Leaving an exquisite hint of butter, it is absolutely enchanting.
Jean-Paul Riopelle, the world-renowned painter who spent the last years of his life on l’Île-aux-Grues, gave his name and the image of one of his best-known paintings to the cheese. In return, part of the profits financially help students of the island who wish to attend high school or university.
If there were no Riopelle to be had, I’d select a another Québec beauty, this one created by Jean Morin at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick, Québec:
Laliberté, a triple-cream cheese made with whole organic cow’s milk from the family dairy farm across the road from the creamery. It’s such a rich dairy delight!
Given the critical and commercial success of Riopelle over the last decade, Canadian producers of cheese on an industrial scale now also offer triple-creams:
The factory cheeses are OK, if you can get past the modified milk ingredients used in their manufacture, but the artisanal producers who use pure milk are the ones who deserve and need the support of Canadian cheese lovers.
Especially with recent rumblings from Ottawa that Canada’s producers of artisan cheeses may face greater challenges in the future. A report in the Ottawa Citizen indicates the Canadian government and European Union are close to a deal that would see a substantial increase in exports of European dairy products—mainly cheese—to Canada in exchange for greater access to European customers for Canadian beef, pork and canola.
Agropur, the giant co-operative owned by 3,459 dairy farmers in Canada, United States and Argentina, dominated the cheddar competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair this week. Agropur cheddars won or placed in six of seven categories with its two-year Grand Cheddar being crowned Grand Champion while the Reserve title went to its one-year Grand Cheddar.
Both cheddars are made at the Longueuil plant in the village of Bon Conseil near Drummondville, Quebec.
Aged cheddar is made with unpasteurized milk. The milk is lightly heated in a process called thermization, which preserves the microorganisms and enzymes in raw milk that give cheddar its characteristic flavor. To prevent pathogenic organisms from proliferating, this type of cheddar undergoes a minimum 60-day aging period from the start of production. The resulting cheese retains all its flavour characteristics and gives the cheddar its distinct flavour.
Here are the top three cheeses in each category of the cheddar competition. Unfortunately, the results provided by the Royal do not name the actual cheddar, only the location of the plant, which is not particularly useful for consumers.
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.
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, 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.
Canadian cheesemakers did remarkably well at the 2011 American Cheese Society Conference and Competition in Montreal this week, winning close to one-quarter of ribbons up for grabs. Best of all, Mariposa Dairy with Lindsay Bandaged Goat Cheddar and Fromagerie du Presbytère with Louis d’Or won Best of Show honors.
D. AMERICAN MADE / INTERNATIONAL STYLE
Cheeses modeled after or based on recipes for established European or other international types or styles – Beaufort, Abondance, Gruyère, Juustoleipa, Caerphilly, English Territorials, Leyden, Butterkäse, Monastery styles, etc.
3rd Cabot Creamery Cooperative, MA
Cabot Unsalted Butter
S. CHEESE SPREADS
Spreads produced by grinding and mixing, without the aid of heat and/or emulsifying salts, one or more natural cheeses
SA: Open Category made from all milks – Spreads with flavors using a base with moisture higher than 44%
3rd Appleton Creamery, ME
Chevre Wrapped in Brandied Grape Leaf
V. WASHED RIND CHEESES
Cheeses with a rind or crust washed in salted brine, whey, beer, wine, other alcohol, or grape lees that exhibit an obvious, smeared or sticky rind and/or crust – Limburger, Pont l’Evêque, Chimay, Raclette, Swiss Appenzeller or Vignerons-style, etc.
Cheese makes news every day. That’s why we’ve started collecting links to the most interesting news reports of the week on a special page under the News tab at the top of the blog. Check it whenever you visit CheeseLover.ca.