Locally made artisanal cheese is getting popular in East Coast kitchens
When you think cheese, you might think of France. But maybe you should think East Coast, where artisanal cheese making has moved well beyond a craft. From Cape Breton sheep cheese and Prince Edward Island clothbound cheddar, to New Brunswick raw milk cheese and Newfoundland’s own camembert, our cheese scene is full of surprises.
Often described in wildly poetic terms—milk’s leap toward immortality, the soul of the soil, and the purest, most romantic link between humans and the earth—cheese is a vital, versatile and much-discussed element of our cuisine. There are more than 1,000 varieties of this ancient food, with well over 300 from France alone. “It’s so much part of the culinary culture of a country,” says Jennie Dobbs, owner and manager of Morris East Restaurant in Halifax. “Artisanal cheese has made leaps and bounds here. There’s a growing appreciation.” Dobbs buys cheese from various sources, including New Brunswick’s Bergerie aux 4 Vents, where she discovered a Tomme le Champ Doré that “punches with flavour.”
Dobbs thinks presenting a cheese plate is the best way to show off local cheeses. “Our guests want to know what the cheese is, where it’s from and the flavour profile,” she says. “They love being talked through the cheese; they want to know every single detail.” The enthusiastic restaurateur has always been passionate about cooking with cheese, whether it’s gooey brie in a mushroom omelette, or a grilled cheese sandwich with sharp cheddar, layered with bacon and tomato chutney. Dobbs uses quark cheese from Fox Hill Farms in the Annapolis Valley for rich and flavourful cheesecake (see recipe link below). She even uses it in gnocchi, along with Old Growler Gouda from That Dutchman’s Farm in Upper Economy, N.S. (see recipe link below). “I think people are passionate about cheese because it’s so flavourful,” says Dobbs. “I think it is just really a beautiful food product to enjoy.”
After working internationally as a chef, cheese lover Ron Muise returned to his native Cape Breton, N.S. to start a sheep cheese business called Wandering Shepherd Cheese. He says ewe milk is popular because of its flavour and its easy-to-digest proteins. He makes a range of cheeses including blue, which has a strong flavour some people traditionally find difficult.
“I’m surprised with the amount of blue cheese people like,” he says. “I started making it just for myself, but people wanted it.” He has an imaginative use for blue cheese by mixing it half and half with butter, rolling it in wax paper and storing it in the freezer for later use on lamb burgers, roasted vegetables, under chicken skin or mixed into pastas (see recipe link below).
Muise has started a small industry, as he has two other farms producing ewe’s milk that he then buys for his cheese. Business is good and he consistently sells out. He enjoys the process, particularly taking note of how flavour varies depending upon what the animals eat.
On Prince Edward Island, Cows Creamery’s cheese-maker Armand Bernard is involved in a business that was important to the island historically. “Traditionally, there were lots of cheese factories on the island,” says Bernard. “If you had milk, you’d make cheese from it. They were groups of farmers, co-ops, independent groups.” Older people, he says, will come in looking for cheddar similar to what they ate years ago. Bernard creates Extra Old Cheddar, Applewood Smoked Cheddar, and Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar that has won several national awards. The recipe for the Clothbound Cheddar is from the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. “The clothbound is a little bit drier and has a more complex flavour,” says Bernard. “It’s like a five-mile cheese. When you have a good cheese, take a bite with your first snack and down the road five miles, the flavour is still on your tongue.”
“I love trying different cheeses,” he says. “I am not much of a cook. I just love it the way it is.” Bernard says the reputation of East Coast cheeses is growing and that he’s often amused when he does samplings in Ontario. “The look on some people’s faces is priceless. They think they’re just grabbing a piece of cheese and walk away. Some stop and turn around and come right back,” he says. Access to good cheese is what makes a meal special, Dobbs says. “What blows my mind is quality cheese judiciously tastes a thousand times better. Even if it’s a bit more expensive, it doesn’t take much to transform an ordinary dish to the extraordinary,” she says.
Recipes featured in this article:
Pulled Lamb Shoulder Po’boy with Lauchie’s Tomme
Oven-dried Tomato, Local Herb and Cheese Gnocchi
Roasted Garlic Aligot
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Gorm Ailig and Pears
Fox Hill Quark Cheesecake with Strawberry Cranberry Compote
Gorm Ailig Butter
Gorm Ailig Tart