What's next for the Canadian cheese industry?

After recent international success, Canadian cheese is at a crossroads. Amanda Scriver checks in with the new generation to find out what’s next.

The sun is rising over the village of Compton, Que. Fromagerie La Station, a creamery dedicated to producing cheese from raw and thermized organic cow’s milk, is at the heart of this countryside community. Four generations of Compton residents have turned to La Station for cheese that reminds them of the local terroir.

Simon-Pierre Bolduc, La Station’s smiling co-owner and cheesemaker, appears from the distance. He waves us towards the stable where the creamery’s 95 prized Holstein dairy cows are kept. As one can imagine, the air is ripe for our tour through the stalls. Bolduc’s enthusiasm is palpable as he points toward the cows. “My brother Vincent has already been here, he arrives before any of us each morning,” Bolduc says.

On the 163 hectares of farmland, the cows at La Station will produce close to 3,000 litres of milk every day which is then transferred to the creamery, where Bolduc and his team will begin their work. Increased import quotas mean Canadian cheese needs to compete. There has been a recent shift in the Canadian cheese world, with our artisanal cheese makers gaining the spotlight worldwide. With makers continuing to produce better – even tastier – cheese than their European counterparts, some have hinted at a renaissance taking place.

Cheese at La Station Fromagerie

According to the Canadian Cheese Directory, Canada produces more than 1,050 different cheeses and is home to 195 creameries. Cheese is classified across six categories according to moisture content; most fall into the firm, soft or semi-soft categories. For some, the basic stages of cheesemaking may not seem complex, but the list of options of how a cheese can turn out is endless. Despite the variety, getting cheese into the hands of interested Canadian consumers is still a daunting task for makers.

At Fromagerie La Station, Bolduc uses only four ingredients – milk, rennet, salt and bacteria – to produce their cheese. “We want to make a cheese that is intimately related to the soil and as a cheesemaker, you adapt to the milk every day and not the other way round,” he says. This philosophy helped the family take home silver in 2017 at the World Cheese Awards for their Comtomme, a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese made with thermized milk and ripened for 90 days.

In the aging room, Bolduc offers a piece for me to try. The texture is smooth, quickly melting in my mouth with a scent that, oddly enough, reminds me of a tart apple. In contrast, their supple Alfred le Fermier is quite different due to the aging process. It’s a more traditional cheese, aged on wood boards for eight to 18 months, resulting in a soft, nutty flavour with a hint of crunch. The texture is even more buttery than the Comtomme and the floral aromas hit my nose like a dry white wine.

For centuries, wood boards have acted as a moisture reservoir, drawing it in when the cheese has too much and returning it when it needs more. These old-school traditions helped win Le Station bronze at the 2017 World Cheese Award for Alfred le Fermier. Canadian cheesemakers have been looking to leverage awards and recognition to expand beyond their borders, both provincially and nationally. But it hasn’t been easy. In 2017, the Government of Canada announced that it would be launching the Dairy Processing Investment Fund for small and medium-sized cheesemakers and dairy processors. This initiative grants funds so they can continue to modernize, grow and expand their businesses.

Canada produces more than 1,050 different cheeses and is home to 195 creameries.

Lyndell Findlay, owner of Blue Harbour Cheese in Halifax, was approaching retirement from her job at the United Nations at the age of 61. With fond memories of learning about cheesemaking from her adventures in the permaculture community of her youth, the thought of cheesemaking as a career started to bloom in her mind. Using the bulk of her retirement savings, she built her own cheese plant in the basement of a converted bungalow in Halifax’s North End. Her goal was to make a blue cheese that the Canadian masses would love.

But without a Federal Cheese Import Licence, she and others have found their options for growth limited. “I knew I had to expand to a wider market,” Findlay says of her small creamery. With the Dairy Processing Investment Fund’s help, Findlay has been able to grow her business and invest in her own federally-licensed processing plant, which will start construction in early 2018. However, educator David Beaudoin of Squeaky Cheese in Winfield, B.C. isn’t convinced that support initiatives from the government are enough to sustain Canadian cheesemakers over time.

Beaudoin points to Fromagerie FX Pichet, a Sélection Caseus competition winner in 2016 and also the 2016 Canadian Cheese Awards winner in three categories, including best semi-soft cheese for their Le Baluchon. Even with all the publicity and awards, the creamery could no longer make ends meet and temporarily shut down from 2014 until new ownership took control in 2017. Beaudoin believes that the government needs to help further promote Canadian cheesemakers in Canada and worldwide, noting that the branding and education for consumers just isn’t there. “If we don’t continue to educate people to believe in our Canadian cheese, all the money invested won’t help these makers survive,” Beaudoin says.

A wedding cheese cake made at Upper Bench Winery & Creamery

Upper Bench Winery & Creamery opened in 2012 as a partnership of good wine and great cheese on the gateway to the Naramata Bench in Penticton, B.C., a region known mostly for its winemaking. Shana Miller and her award-winning winemaker husband Gavin Miller took a chance on opening their space, after placing a bid on another winery in the midst of a foreclosure.

Gavin and his crew are hard at work as Shana walks through the fields with the couple’s two dogs. She points to the small cheesemaking facility that they built into the back of their building. While the facility is on the small side, as a traditionalist, Shana loves the ability to touch and feel the curd at its various stages of development.

Shana shows me around the creamery and invites me to take one of the wheels of her traditional-style brie (“U & Brie”) and wash it alongside her. As we work together, Shana says that she is surprised that “many Canadians still don’t know or understand what washed rinds are,” and notes that knowing the differences between cheese and the processes of making them isn’t a top priority for many consumers.

“If we don’t continue to educate people to believe in our Canadian cheese, all the money invested won’t help these makers survive.”

Afrim Pristine, a third-generation cheesemonger and maître fromager, gained first-hand perspective from behind the counter at his shop, the Cheese Boutique in Toronto. He points out that while consumers tend to have special bonds with traditional cheeses, appetite has grown for creative cheeses. He references creameries like Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Woodstock, Ont. who recently teamed up with Beau’s All-Natural Brewery to create a semi-soft cheese washed with beer. Similarly, Stonetown Artisan Cheese in St. Mary’s, Ont. paired up with Vineland Estates Winery to create their Game Changer Red and White cheese which is soaked in wine.

What many Canadians haven’t realized yet is our cheese is one of our best exports. We’re really lucky,” says Albert Borgo of Quality Cheese in Vaughan, Ont. “We have great milk and a great agricultural sector with great land.” Borgo wants us to start showcasing that Canadian cheese is not only a luxury but one of our best export products. His feelings are echoed by Pristine who says that “people are finally realizing that the cheese products being produced in Canada aren’t just great because they are Canadian, they are world-class because of the quality and technique used.”

With continued support, funding and education from consumers and government alike, makers can continue to produce acclaim-worthy cheese and we can continue to experience the full potential of it.