Any way you slice it, cheese was the big focus at a recent three-day workshop at BioFoodTech in Charlottetown.
More than a dozen participants in The Art and Science of Cheese Making were given hands-on lessons in the actual cheese manufacturing process that included a palate-pleasing lineup of Camembert, gouda, feta and cheddar.
“This is really cheese 101 . . . ,” says Art Hill, professor and chair of the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who presented classroom sessions, along with artisan cheese maker Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy in Stratford, Ont.
The impetus for the workshop was to demystify the process for potential cheese makers in P.E.I. and encourage them to enter the field.
BioFoodTech contacted the Canadian Dairy Commission and the two forged a partnership to present the three-day workshop to encourage Islanders to join in on what is an up-and-coming industry.
“Quebec has hundreds of small cheese makers that have a relatively small volume of product going into the marketplace, but it’s great for tourism to have a multiplicity of different products available. That’s what draws people who are really interested in food and food tourism,” says Jim Smith, executive director of BioFoodTech.
“So we could do something similar here. It just adds to the attraction.”
And artisan cheese is where it’s at in the industry.
“There is a lot more on-farm processing now and a lot more cheese being made from milk from other species like goat, sheep or buffalo,” Hill says.
“Most of that is in smaller quantities but what is does is it adds a lot of diversity to the industry and a lot of innovation that didn’t exist before.”
Klahsen is one producer who has been adding diversity to the artisan cheese market in her Ontario city for the last decade.
“We work with four different milks — sheep, goat, cow and water buffalo — and we make about 30 kinds of cheese,” says this former chef, who has had an onsite dairy for the past two years.
To achieve that goal, she really got creative.
“We raised ($500,000) by preselling cheese, so we sold futures in cheese. So we have 1,000 subscribers, who each put in $500,” says Klahsen, who guided workshop participants through a hands-on manufacturing process for making four different kinds of cheeses.
She also touched on the elements of storage and aging, plant sanitation and good manufacturing techniques. With the basics in the bag, people can then start to work toward putting their own stamp on their cheese style.
“I think it’s a bit like cooking. You figure out what style and flavour you want and then you keep working for that,” she says.
The workshop attracted employees from local cheese manufacturing companies and other interested individuals, including Kate Westphal,
“I’ve always been passionate about cheese — probably too passionate,” smiles the Charlottetown graphic designer, who leapt at the chance to attend the three-day cheese making workshop.
“I wanted to learn the process. I’m intrigued about the art of artisanal cheese making and, who knows, in retirement it may be an option for me. It has a very romantic notion around making your own cheese. It’s very tactile, very hands on. It’s also extraordinarily scientific, which I am learning. I’ve been dreaming of about protein fat ratios,” she adds, laughing.
As a member of the P.E.I. Culinary Alliance, chef Jeff McCourt, who is also an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada, appreciates that artisan cheese making is an opportunity for Islanders.
“It’s something that we’d like to see more (of on P.E.I.). We’re trying to increase our whole food profile and people are interested in it. Everyone loves cheese . . . ,” he says.
“If you go through Quebec and the eastern townships where that’s the real artisan (community) and talk to the cheese makers there, it’s like you’re capturing a moment in time of that particular vat of milk. Maybe the cows have eaten just fresh on the grass in the springtime after being in the barn all winter; the milk changes. Cheese really captures that moment in time.
There are many hurtles that newbie cheese makers must overcome, including sourcing a milk supply and equipment and meeting the rigid food safety requirements.
However, BioFoodTech allows cheese markets to start off slowly and build up, rather than invest a huge amount of capital into the extensive list of expensive equipment needed.
“From BioFoodTech’s perspective, what we have here is a pilot plant that can be used to make cheese. We have the equipment to make small-scale artisan cheeses here in P.E.I. and that’s what we’ve been using over the last few years to make these cheeses. What we would like to do is to encourage people to come into our pilot plant to make their cheese to see in the (retail) market because we have the CFIA registration to do that type of work,” Smith says.
“The benefit of that is they don’t have to buy all that equipment themselves, they can come here and rent it (for the time needed) and build up to at some point in time where they can actually build their own facility. So it means that they don’t need all that infrastructure you would normally need to make that type of product because it’s all here at BioFoodTech.”