WORLD FOOD – Cheese In Quebec (PART TWO)

Many seminar-workshops were held during the last Festival des Fromages in Warwick, Quebec, including the Forum for Quebec’s cheese-making industry, sponsored by the CILQ, which brings together participants from the sector. This meeting highlighted the need to establish a ‘cheese-making corporation’. With the support of the CILQ and the ALCQ Gilles Lafontaine was entrusted with the task of carrying out research aiming to establish the corporation’s guideline criteria. The corporate objective would be to promote Quebec’s traditional cheeses, focusing on the creation of a cheese designation. ‘We need to define the profession of the traditional farm cheese-maker with the help of regulations established by the State,’ explains Claude Lambert, president and director of the CILQ. The traditional cheese-makers do effectively complain that at the moment just about anyone can claim to make ‘traditional’ cheese and is authorized to sell and promote it with this specific definition. The participants are expected to meet again next autumn to review the results of the research carried out by Gilles Fontaine’s team.

The future of Quebec’s traditional and farm cheeses looks rosy. Éric Granger judges the growth of this market to be in the early stages while Gilles Fontaine predicts that Quebec will become a promised land of quality cheeses: ‘This is a flourishing market, perhaps not so much in terms of quantity as in cultural identity and pride. Quebec’s cheeses are among the area’s most important products’. Michel Gauthier believes that the future of this sector is linked to these two conditions: ‘access to the home market and opening up to export markets’.

Many challenges remain. The first of these, according to Gilles Lafontaine, is the production of sufficient quantities. At the moment small producers are unable to fulfil the current demand. Enlargement is not necessarily the right solution, also because increasing production while maintaining traditional methods is easier said than done.

Another challenge is presenting and distributing these products on the market. ‘Quebec is huge. It isn’t easy for a small business to distribute its products throughout the territory’, points out Éric Granger. It is hard for small cheese dairies to find their way into the sales network dealing with general foods, because they are unable to guarantee the quantities required by large chain stores. Traditionally made cheeses are therefore found in specialised shops and quality restaurants. ‘Most traditional cheese-makers follow this route because retailers and restaurateurs are like ambassadors. The producers have a showcase to get them known and consequently the demand depends on the consumers,’ explains Gilles Lafontaine.

Lastly, another important challenge for the traditional producers is consistency. ‘Traditional cheese-makers are working to build their reputation. They have to be sure the consumer will recognise the same characteristics in a product each time,’ says Claude Lambert. ‘Many new cheeses make their debut in the market, but not all of them are good quality. Consumers must be selective in years to come,’ warns Yann Picard. ‘Producers will have to increase a consistent level of production because in the near future consumers will become more demanding in terms of quality and prices,’ adds André Piché.

This requirement is not only evident on a local level but also in foreign markets where some producers hope to make good. ‘Niche products like soft cow’s milk cheese, goat cheese and sheep cheese are in a favourable situation in terms of exporting to the US,’ says Michel Gauthier, councillor for exportation to the American market in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Quebec (MAPAQ). Markets consisting of hotels and restaurants could prove to be very interesting. ‘But this is not going to happen overnight,’ Gauthier adds. Maurice Dufour, who makes and matures cheese, notably the Migneron and Ciel of Charlevoix, adheres to the view that Quebec is destined to become America’s cheese-making state. ‘If we maintain our regional typicity we will have the best features to fulfil this objective’.

According to Statistique Canada ‘speciality’ cheeses include any cheese other than cheddar, cottage and processed cheese – whether of industrial or traditional origins. No legislation yet exists to define traditional or farm cheese. While waiting for the industry to obtain specific parameters for the definition of these cheeses, ‘we follow European regulations which define traditional cheese dairies as businesses employing less than 10 staff and using traditional production methods’ specifies Claude Lambert, of the Conseil de l’industrie laitière du Québec (council for Quebec’s
dairy industry – CILQ). Éric Granger of the Association laitière de la chèvre du Québec (association of Quebec goat milk producers) adds that in this sector, ‘We are agreed on defining farm cheese as the product of milk obtained and processed at the farm itself, while traditional cheeses are made with milk obtained elsewhere’.

Elisabeth Touchette, co-leader of 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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