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Beyond wine and cheese

Artisanal cheese is coming into its own in Atlantic Canada. And with more local beer, wine, and cider options, there are endless combinations to try

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When chef Ron Muise returned home to Cape Breton after years of working in Europe as a chef, he had no plans to go into the cheese business. And then he went to a party. “I think it was the first week after I moved back,” he says. “I was invited to a wine and cheese party, and the cheese was Kraft, I think, marble and sliced up mozzarella.”

Today, Muise and his wife, Christa McKinnon, have taken over the McKinnon’s family farm near Marion Bridge, N.S. Under the brand Wandering Shepherd, Muise produces the only sheep milk cheeses made in Nova Scotia.

While the region’s craft-beer, wine, and cider industries are growing, artisanal cheese is slower to catch on. It’s in part because of complex regulations and higher prices, plus a consumer base that may not have grown up eating fine cheese.

But over the last few years, several new cheesemakers have set up shop in P.E.I., Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. While they are small in number, they produce an impressive variety of products, from mild blue to a mellow Basque-style ewe milk tomme, to classic goudas, goat milk cheeses, and more exotic offerings like water buffalo cheese.

Lyndell Findlay started Blue Harbour Cheese in North End Halifax in 2012, after eight years as a protection officer in Darfur, Congo and Myanmar with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Most people come to cheese making from something else,” she says. “It’s not something most people want to do from childhood.”

She opted to start with a mild blue cheese to help win over the cautious taste buds of those who shy away from stronger flavours. Her Urban Blue is a mild double-cream cheese that she says, “people could relate to and was approachable, and wasn’t going to burn their throat out.”

In New Brunswick, another career-changing cheesemaker is attracting customers to a blue cheese. Didier Laurent produces dozens of goat milk cheeses on his farm in Rexton, where he keeps a herd of 200 animals. He moved to the province nearly five years ago, leaving behind a decade of serving as majordomo, or chief steward, to the King of Belgium.

Fromagerie au fond des bois, his company, is the only one in the province producing solely goat cheese. As a result, he says he must overcome a bit of resistance from people hesitant to try his products. But an increased interest in local food and terroir is drawing customers. To his surprise, a new blue cheese called Le Brillant, which he created by accident when a cheese he was aging didn’t turn out as expected, seems to be catching on.

He calls Le Brillant very strong. “I thought people wouldn’t like it, but when they taste it the full flavour hits them a moment later and I can see their look of surprise.” Laurent says at first he thought the reaction was negative, but customers nearly always wound up buying the cheese.

“Interest in local cheese is definitely increasing” says Jeff McCourt, a former chef who bought the iconic Cheese Lady gouda business three years ago and incorporated into his new business, Glasgow Glen Farm in New Glasgow, P.E.I. “But it’s also very cost-prohibitive to enter. All the money you spend on milk can be tied up in aging cheese for up to 10 months or a year, or even three years.” Findlay says managing production schedules and inventory means looking far ahead to make sure there’s enough cheese available when sales are highest, for instance, in December.

One of the things that appeals to McCourt about cheese is how it reflects regional differences. “[Artisanal cheese] is hard to replicate and it’s terroir-driven,” he says. “Our cheese is uniquely P.E.I. gouda. We have Dutch people who come over and say it’s not like the gouda they have at home. Well no, it isn’t. Our milk is that much better, we have salt air, the grass is different here, and the cows eat a different diet. It really is a true representation of P.E.I. terroir.”

High costs mean local cheese producers don’t compete on price. If you’re buying their cheeses, it’s important to get the most from them. While cheeses get better as they age, they won’t improve in your fridge. “I always tell people not to try to age it at home,” says Muise. “Your fridge is too cold. The best way to do it is buy small amounts often.” Cheese, he says, “is like a red wine. Let it get up to room temperature and you’re going to taste a lot more of the flavour.”

Philip Belanger, chair of the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix national competition, says that “proper storage is of vital importance.” He stores soft cheeses in foil, wax paper, or plastic wrap to prevent drying out. Blues are best kept in foil, which is breathable. For harder cheeses like gouda, the ideal is plastic wrap in a sealed bag. If the cheese has a rind, use wax paper “to allow oxygen to work with the bacteria” and then wrap in plastic as well.

Another tip is to keep your cheese at the bottom of the fridge, as far as possible from meat, to avoid having it pick up other flavours. Belanger says the crisper is a great spot.