Open a package, and the powerful aroma permeates the room. Put a slice in your mouth, and you get the sensation of an incredible floral explosion. This is a masterpiece of a cheese that could easily stand up to some of the finest Old World cheeses. And it does.
Quebec cheese masters, such as Luc Mailloux, are equal parts skilled artisan and exacting perfectionist. Before putting one of his fine cheeses on the market, Mailloux made more than 8,000 wheels of it until he felt it was just right. And after his Saint-Basile debuted, none other than the great Paul Bocuse (father of nouvelle cuisine and one of the finest French chefs of the 20th century) declared he was unable to find its equal among French cheeses, so outstanding and unique was Saint-Basile.
While Mailloux’s products are clearly exceptional, demand for Quebec cheeses in general is growing, both in Quebec and abroad. Whether of cow’s, goat’s or ewe’s milk, Quebec cheeses are taking up prime shelf space at upscale grocery stores, on the menus of leading North American chefs and on the dinner tables of the most demanding connoisseurs.
“Who would have ever thought that one day there’d be nearly as many Quebec cheeses in our supermarkets as there are imported ones?” asks the late Jules Roiseux in his guide to the province’s cheeses, Le Guide complet des fromages du Québec. “And that many of our cheeses, especially our raw-milk cheeses, would be served in the finest restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York?”
From small-scale artisanal outfits to sizeable producers, cheesemaking operations have sprouted like mushrooms in Quebec in the last few decades, “a unique phenomenon in the world,” say Richard Bizier and Roch Nadeau in their Répertoire des fromages du Québec (directory of Quebec cheeses). Bizier and Nadeau are among many experts who contend that nowhere else in North America are so many fine cheeses being produced.
Here’s the trick: a combo of high-quality milk mixed with the inventiveness and skill of local masters. While famous French and European cheeses have clearly inspired some, others are entirely original. For example, Quebec producers might rub their cheeses with strong Québécois beer, wash them with mead or smoke them with maple wood.
They tend to give their cheeses witty names, or names that pay homage to the beauty or history of a region: Migneron de Charlevoix, Pied-De-Vent from the Îles de la Madeleine, Coureur des Bois from Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, Riopelle de l’Île from Île aux Grues, Diable aux Vaches from Mont-Laurier, Fumirolle from Côte de Beaupré, Sieur Corbeau des Laurentides, and Tarapatapom from Knowlton.
French roots Cheesemaking has a long history in Quebec. Canadian cheesemaking began after Jacques Cartier imported the first French cows to New France in 1541. But a real industry didn’t get off the ground until the 19th century, when artisans in Quebec and across Canada gradually took up the trade.
In 1850, a farm in Sault-au-Récollet, QC, started producing Crème de Beloeil, a sort of Québécois Camembert. In 1893, the monks of Oka, a small Quebec village, began turning out cheeses that are today among the most esteemed of Quebec cheeses. In 1895, Fromagerie Perron was founded, and is still in operation (its original building, classified as a historic monument, now houses a museum). A few years later, the Benedictine monks of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac and the nuns of Mont-Laurier also dipped into fromage making.
But the proliferation of real establishments, especially small-scale artisan operations, is a much more recent trend. André Fouillet, author of À la découverte des fromageries du Québec, which covered more than 70 Quebec cheese producers when it was published in 1998, attributes the phenomenon chiefly to growing demand from locals. “They had begun to travel a lot more, especially to France, where they discovered there were all sorts of products of the soil,” he says. “And they started wondering why there was so little of that kind of thing back home.”
Today Quebecers have precious little to complain about on that score. The number of local cheeses has multiplied, and the province now boasts some 100 cheese producers scattered throughout every region (La Route gourmande des fromages fins du Québec brochure lists about 50 in 14 regions). Some offer tours and others don’t, but all open to anyone who wants to sample or take home some cheese.
Cheese, please Fromagerie au Village: 45, Notre-Dame Ouest, Lorrainville (Abitibi), 819-625-2255. Try Le Cru du Clocher, a succulent aged cheddar made with raw milk.
Les Fromages de l’Érablière: 1580 Eugène-Trinquier, Mont-Laurier (Laurentians), 819-623-3459. Try Le Cru des érables, a raw-milk cheese ripened with an “acéritif” (aperitif made with maple water).
Fromagerie Oka: 1400 Chemin Oka, Oka (Laurentians), 450-479-6396. The first-ever fine Quebec cheeses were made at this Trappist monastery in 1893.
La Biquetterie: 470 Route 315, Chénéville (Outaouais), 819-428-3061. Try their exquisite hand-ladled goat cheeses. Fromagerie du Champ à la Meule: 3601 Principale, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes (Lanaudière), 450-753-9217. Makers of Victor et Berthold, one of the most celebrated Quebec cheeses.
Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser: 459 4eme Concession, Noyan (Montérégie), 450-294-2207. Cheeses include La Tomme de M. Séguin, made with half goat’s milk and half cow’s milk.
Fromagerie Au gré des champs: 400 Rang Saint-Édouard, Saint-Athanase (Montérégie), 450-346-8732. Try: Au gré des champs and D’Iberville, raw-milk cheeses made with milk from cows fed on certified-organic wildflowers and grasses.
Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey: 1 Rue Principale, Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (Eastern Townships), 819-843-4336 or 1-877-343-4336 toll-free. Steeped in history and as famous for its setting as its many cheeses. Bleu Bénédictin won the 2006 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix in the blue cheese category.
Fromage Côté: 80 Rue Hôtel-de-ville, Warwick (Bois-Francs), 819-358-3300. Specializes in washed-rind cheeses, including Cantonnier de Warwick and Sir Laurier d’Arthabaska. Triple Crème Du Village de Warwick was awarded the 2006 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix in the soft cheese category.
Bergerie La Moutonnière: 3690 Rang No 3, Sainte-Hélène-de-Chester (Bois-Francs), 819-382-2300. Billed as the first and only farm to make ewe’s-milk cheeses on site.
Fromagerie Île-aux-Grues: 210 Chemin du Roy, Île aux Grues (Chaudière-Appalaches), 418-248-5842. Try Mi-Carême, a raw-milk soft cheese, and Riopelle de l’Île, named after the illustrious painter who often vacationed on the island.
Maison d’affinage Maurice Dufour: 1339 Mgr de Laval, Baie-Saint-Paul (Charlevoix), 418-435-5692. Makes Migneron (winner of the 2002 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix) and Ciel de Charlevoix, a heavenly raw-milk blue cheese.
Fromagerie Perron: 156 av. Albert-Perron, Saint-Prime (Lac-Saint-Jean), 418-251-3164 or 1-866-251-3164. Venerable producer of an internationally renowned cheddar.
Ferme Chimo: 1705 Boul. de Douglas, Gaspé (Gaspésie), 418-368-4102. Makes unique goat’s milk cheeses.
Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent: 149 Chemin de la Pointe-Basse, Havre-aux-Maisons, Îles de la Madeleine, 418-969-9292. Makers of the famous Pied-De-Vent cheese.
La Route gourmande des fromages fins du Québec brochure is available for free at Tourisme Québec information centres throughout the province, or call 1-877-266-5687 or 1-514-873-2015.
The CTC produced a version of this story for its GoMedia website.