Local culture: B.C.’s artisan cheeses

Old-world style cheesemaking has grown steadily in the past decade.

Credit: Nik West

Old World know-how infuses BC’s artisan cheeses

Twenty years ago, you could sum up the selection of B.C. cheese in your local grocery store with three words: mild, medium or sharp. The enduring charm of the grilled cheese sandwich notwithstanding, this was a limited palette if you wanted to buy local or even semi-local. But artisan cheesemaking has grown steadily in the province over the past 10 years, and today you can pluck B.C.-made smoked Capramonte and Welsh Caerphillys from the deli case as easily as a loaf of cheddar.

This emerging slow-food tradition has been boosted by the ripple effects of James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith’s 100-mile diet, which has raised awareness about the ecological and gustatory benefits of food made in our own back yard. Artisan cheese-makers in B.C. are on the verge of the kind of heyday now enjoyed by our flourishing wine industry.

A list of B.C.’s artisan cheesemakers

However, while most of us know how the B.C. wine industry got its start – from cold-resistant hybrid vines that produced, for the most part, a ruddy plonk – the history of B.C. cheese is less well-known. My library research on the subject at first led only to a Department of Agriculture report circa 1961, with chapters titled “Cottage Cheese Consumption Projections” and “Future Inter-Area Distribution Patterns” – and I was enlightened only slightly more by a promising but fluid-centric B.C. history called Milk Stories. To get a better grasp on the subject, and some free samples, I headed out to the Fraser Valley, historically the heart of B.C.’s dairy industry.

Cheesemaking came to Canada in the early 1600s, when French settlers brought dairy cattle with them to the Maritimes. From there it spread to Quebec and Ontario, but cheese wasn’t produced west of the Rockies until two centuries later, when the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced dairy cows to B.C. Settlers on Vancouver Island and in the Fraser Valley brought basic cheese-making traditions with them – and basic is the operative word. For the most part, home cheesemaking consisted of crocks of raw milk set out by the stove or fireplace to “clabber”: to curdle and acidify through warm temperatures and airborne bacteria. The resulting cottage cheese would be eaten as is, or pressed into a fresh semi-soft cheese, sometimes called pot cheese or farmers cheese.

“Traditionally, that was the way it was done,” agrees Debra Amrein-Boyes, head cheese-­maker at The Farm House Natural Cheeses in Agassiz. I had pulled in for a tasting, and Debra had taken off her cheese-maker’s hairnet and apron to join me in the Farm House shop. Through the window into the production room, I could see bags of fresh chevre hung to drip, and birthday-cake-sized rounds of cheddar awaiting transfer. “Cows don’t give milk the season before calving, so families would have saved cheese in the cellar,” Amrein-Boyes continues. “Every ethnic grouping from the Dutch to the Doukhobors would have had their
own cheese types.”

Amrein-Boyes was born in Canada of Swiss heritage and moved to Switzerland in 1982. After learning to make her own fresh cheeses and attending several cheesemaking courses, she returned to B.C. 10 years later and started Farm House with her husband George Boyes on the family’s dairy farm. Debra is a poster woman for the rural artisan lifestyle, and her savoir faire is dangerous to anyone who has considered going agricultural. She makes planting feed corn and hand-ladling cream into the batch pasteurizer sound like a portion of paradise. “Our life here is so beautiful,” she gushes. “And the Fraser Valley is so lush – in the Prairies you get one haying, and if it rains during harvest you’re in trouble. Here you get five hayings. It’s unbelievable.” As we talk, I sample my way through a half-dozen of Farm House’s handmade cheeses. My favourite, heightened by an empty stomach, is not the creamy golden brie nor the cumin Gouda, but their La Florette, a tangy round of mould-ripened goat’s-milk cheese.

Aged cheeses, Amrein-Boyes continues, were historically made from excess milk collected in the spring and summer. This was a pragmatic way of preserving protein for the winter months, when cows were allowed to “dry up” and rest before calving in the spring. Again, no fancy rinds, cultures or moulds. Washed-rind soft cheeses like St. Paulin and Munster (not to be confused with American muenster) were invented by French monastics in the Middle Ages, and even six centuries later they weren’t likely to turn up on a working farm west of Quebec. If you lived in B.C. prior to the 1900s and were looking for something to accompany your daily bread, you’d likely be eating a semi-hard cheese with the taste of mild gouda.
The Armstrong Cheese Factory was the first and most famous large-scale cheese producer in B.C. Temperature-controlled cooling rooms enabled longer aging, which meant more flavour, and mass-production in the Armstrong plant – which by 1943 was selling 820,000 pounds a year – made clabbering your own cheese less common.

While Armstrong’s tangy, dense cheeses shaped the palates of British Columbians for decades, preparing them for more unusual fare, these days the Armstrong cheese label is more ironic than iconic. In days of yore the Armstrong label produced low-moisture sharp cheddars, fondly remembered by our grandparents, that put the province on the map as a cheese capital. Soon after its 1938 opening, the factory won two awards at the British Empire Cheese Show in Belleville, Ontario. But by 1961 the factory’s parent co-operative had gone bankrupt, and the brand continued to change hands over the next three decades, bought by larger and larger conglomerates. In 2003 Montreal-based mega-cheese-maker Saputo – current owners of Dairyland, Stella, Vachon, Frigo and a dozen other cheese imprints – shut down the last dairy operations at the Armstrong plant. Now Armstrong cheese is a name without a place, the label slapped on a less impressive cheddar that is produced at a string of Saputo plants across Canada.

Fortunately, B.C.’s cheddar heritage has been revived in Armstrong by artisan cheese-makers at the Village Cheese Company. The true heirs to the Armstrong tradition, only two years after opening they took first prize at the 72nd Annual British Empire Cheese Show – still held in Belleville, 70 years after the initial Armstrong Cheese was founded.
Artisanal methods hark back to the days before factory production, but Amrein-­Boyes believes large-scale operations have their place. “We can’t feed the masses with little places like this,” she says. “We need industrial producers.” On the other hand, she adds, large operations keep cattle indoors and give them standardized feed, which results in less-flavourful milk. “Our butter, for example, is an awesome deep yellow because of the beta carotene in the spring grass our cows graze on. And farmstead cheese-makers have the advantage of being able to micro-manage. If there’s too much clover in the cows’ feed, we can tell, because there are too many holes in the gouda, and George can adjust the mixture.”
Prior to World War II, if anyone in B.C. was looking for something more exotic than cheddar or colby they were mostly out of luck. Not many French monastics had immigrated to B.C., and the populations that arrived before 1950 were either from cheese-less cultures (China and Japan) or – no other word seems to fit – basic in their tastes (English, Dutch). As I pursued my research, I was hoping to find that Doukhobors had brought some esoteric cheese recipes with them, but if they did they kept them under wraps. The evidence suggests they were primarily interested in cottage cheese for stuffing piroshki.

The postwar 1950s brought an influx of Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Dutch to B.C., and some Old World flavours started to turn up in B.C. Two Italian immigrants in late-sixties Vancouver began mass-producing mozzarella for the pizza trade, along with specialty cheeses for the Italian community like burrini, scamorza and caciocavallo. Greek and Portuguese restaurants helped introduce sheep and goat’s-milk cheeses to consumers. As for the Dutch, one direct descendant is Gort’s Gouda, a farmstead producer in Salmon Arm that has been making cheeses such as cow gouda, goat gouda and maasdammer (a less salty, Swiss style cheese) for over 20 years.

We’ve come a long way since the days of clabbered cream. B.C. is in the middle of a farmstead cheese renaissance, infused with Old World expertise. Local, organic quality is back in favour, gourmet eclecticism is on the rise, and food traditions are coming full circle. “This is real food,” says Amrein-Boyes. “Every time we turn around, we find the old way is still the best way.”