WORLD FOOD – Cheese In Quebec (PART ONE)

While consumers are still discovering the wines of Quebec, they have clearly been infatuated with another local product for several years: cheese. Last year about two billion litres of milk were made into cheese in Quebec, which translates as about 55% of Canada’s production and about 75% of the country’s top quality cheese production. In 1987, there were only 39 private cheese-making companies while in 2000 there were 85, and 58 of them used traditional methods. This goes to show how popular traditionally-made cheese is here!

From the mid-Nineties onwards, traditional cheese dairies and farm annexes sprung up like mushrooms. A typical local product emerged and the market exploded. Éric Granger, managing director of the association of goat’s milk producers in Quebec (ALCQ) confirms this: ‘Every year five or six new cheese dairies appear and existing ones increase their activity. In Quebec goat cheese production has doubled in three years and the sheep’s milk sector has increased considerably’.

Yann Picard, vice-president of the Hamel cheese dairy in Montreal, has followed the development of Quebec’s production and customer consumption. ‘Clients want various types of cheese to be available,’ he says, and adds that the demand for Quebec’s cheese has been increasing steadily for several years. André Piché, owner of the Maître Corbeau dairy in Montreal, agrees and attributes this popularity to a combination of factors, including the Grand Prix of Canadian cheeses, which contributes towards making the region’s cheeses well-known.

Thanks to the traditional cheese dairies and farms, there is a huge variety of quality cheeses on the market, although no more than 5.4% of the milk produced in Quebec is made into cheese. These are made with cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk, and grouped by type: soft, medium-hard, hard or blue, with bloomy or washed rind, made with pasteurised, long-life or raw milk. Bearing in mind that sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese production is only a few years old, these have been remarkably successful on the market.

Each traditionally-made cheese has its own character and this is often no more than an expression of its region of origin. ‘The milk of each individual flock or herd has its own peculiar characteristics, which are used to produce different cheeses’, explains Éric Granger. Production methods, like maturing procedures and times, also serve to endow the cheese with its own distinctive personality. Many of the cheeses are greatly discussed, both because they win awards and – more simply – because their flavour has won the public over. ‘Migneron from Charlevoix, Mi-Carême from the Île-aux-Grues, Pied-de-vent from the Îles-de-la-Madeleine: all these cheeses contribute towards creating the special character the industry has been perfecting for its products,’ points out Gilles Lafontaine, sales and marketing director of the Fromagerie Tournevent, president of the Salon des fromages fins du Québec and the Warwick Festival des fromages and promoter of the Sélection Caseus competition.

It is generally agreed that the traditional cheese-making sector has a number of aces up its sleeve, including sizeable milk production from selected animals. Cheese makers have also developed skills enabling them to produce excellent cheeses whose quality is controlled by strict monitoring programmes and inspection. Lastly, interest in farm holidays is at its peak and the consumers’ love for foods linked to their region shows no sign of waning.

In recent years Quebec’s traditional cheese producers have begun to take part in various promotional activities to stimulate public interest, including the Festival des Fromages in Warwick and the Route Gourmande des Fromages Fins du Québec (the gourmet’s fine cheese route in Quebec). The latter was created in 1998 by the Quebec milk industry council (CILQ) and the ALCQ, and is in its second year. This edition aims to encourage cheese-lovers to scour the province for local cheeses.

Since 1995, the Festival des Fromages in Warwick has promoted quality cheeses from Quebec, and the dairies and cheese-makers who produce them. This year 34,000 visitors attended the event which included, amongst other attractions, the Salon des fromages fins (Hall of Fine Cheeses). About 30 exhibitors displayed countless new products. The Festival also provided a backdrop for the Sélection Caseus competition. Three years ago, the organizers joined forces with the Institut de technologie agro-alimentaire of Saint-Hyacinthe (Farm-food technology institute – ITA) to create this competition, which rewards the skill and competence of traditional cheese-makers.

Elisabeth Touchette is co-leader of the Slow Food Montreal Convivium.

First published in Le Monde alimentaire, vol.5, n° 5, September-October 2001

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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