What Makes Quebec's Artisan Cheese World-Famous?
I'm in the boutique -- La Fromagerie -- at Alexis de Portneuf, one of four destinations on the Portneuf stretch of the Quebec Cheese Route, a trail that links 104 producers that make an impressive three-quarters of the cheese in Canada.
I slide my knife into Le Cendrillon, a goat cheese named after Cinderella. I slather a piece onto a sliver of baguette and take a bite. The burst of ripe earthy flavour startles -- you don't expect it from such a demure-looking soft snowy centre.
Just like its fairy-tale namesake, Le Cendrillon's milky whiteness is concealed under a fine layer of ash, though in this case, it's an edible vegetable ash. With its smudged and wrinkled skin, it's not in line to win any beauty contests, but in 2009, the long flat-topped pyramid was named grand winner at the World Cheese Awards. After just one bite, I'm curious to find out what it takes to make the world's best cheese.
Saint-Raymond de Portneuf lies between Quebec City and Trois Rivières. To get there, you drive along the bank of the St. Lawrence River, following a gently winding road past grazing cattle, white cottages with red ski-slope roofs, and valleys and hills that rise and fall in gentle ripples.
Alexis Cayer was one of four men who cleared the land where Saint-Raymond was built in the 1830s; he became the town's first mayor. Over the next few decades, French, Irish and Scottish newcomers settled in the region, working in logging and becoming subsistence farmers who would use some of the milk stored in their milk houses to make cheese on their own properties, often keeping it refrigerated in ice houses packed with frozen blocks pulled from the St. Lawrence.
In 1946, Henri Cayer -- Alexis's great-great-grandson -- founded a dairy in that town. On his first day, he went door-to-door with six bottles of milk and sold only one, but he persisted and the company took off, eventually producing fine cheeses under the brand Alexis de Portneuf, in honour of Cayer's forebear.
In a field just beyond the village sits a small collection of aluminum-walled factories. Decidedly, the Alexis de Portneuf facilities lack bells and whistles. The only whimsy here: a couple of weather vanes topped with cows in place of roosters. It doesn't look like the kind of rustic artisanal outfit you'd picture beating 2,440 contenders in an international fine-cheese contest.
In 2000, Cayer sold his company to Canada's largest cheese producer, Saputo Group Inc. -- an international player founded in 1954 by master cheese maker and Sicilian immigrant to Montreal Giuseppe Saputo. While the scale of production now makes it possible to supply grocery stores across North America, the original values and methods are still in place.
Photography, courtesy of Alexis de Portneuf (La Roche Noire).