Cheeses, star products of Quebec agri-tourism
Cheese making has evolved remarkably in Quebec, where some 350 different varieties of cheese are produced, from mild to very strong, in almost every region of the province. Their colourful names reflect the creativity of the artisans that make them and the attachment to the land: Pied-De-Vent des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Ciel de Charlevoix, Mi-Carême de L’Isle-aux-Grues, Louis d’or de Warwick or Grand 2, made on Rang 2, Grondines, Quebec. Food lovers are particularly fond of these authentic hand-crafted cheeses, which have won many national and international awards. Visiting Quebec’s cheese factories is a delicious way to discover la Belle Province.
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Cheeses, at the heart of Quebec food heritage
There are a hundred or so cheese factories in Quebec, which make more than half the cheese produced in Canada, or about 215,000 tonnes. Cheese makers cultivate recognition of their cheeses, which are superb ambassadors of Quebec regional know-how and the local areas that produce them. Enhancing the excellence of Quebec cheeses generates spinoff in cities and the regions, as well as in the restaurant and agri-tourism industries and at festivals, such as the Cheddar Cheese Museum in Saint-Prime and the Montreal Cheese Festival, or along the Quebec gourmet cheese trail known as the Route des fromages fins.
A number of Quebec cheeses have won prestigious awards in competitions like the World Championship Cheese Contest or the Grand Prix of Canadian Cheeses. The Quebec cheese industry began in New France, developed under the English Regime, and continued into the first decades of Canadian Confederation. Over the last thirty years, the cheese sector has virtually exploded!
An ancient heritage in a new setting
Dairy cows were introduced into New France in the first decade of the 17th century, and the French who immigrated to the colony brought their cheese making traditions with them. The first documented production of cheese was around 1690 at the Island of Orléans, near Quebec City. This was “Saint Peter’s Delight”, small cow’s milk cheese with a Camembert flavour. The recipe for this cheese has been passed on from generation to generation, and a version similar to the old recipe can be tasted at Fromages de l’Isle d’Orléans. However, at the time of New France, cheeses imported from England and Holland had a better reputation.
After 1763, with the arrival of the British, and even more so with the influx of Loyalist immigrants fleeing the American Revolution, cheese production was transformed by the introduction of new processes. Hard, cheddar-type cheese began to appear.
Quebec cheddar conquers the world
In the early 1830s, most of the cheese consumed in Lower Canada (what is now Quebec) was from the United States. To address the situation, measures were taken to improve dairy cow breeds and develop the domestic production of butter and cheese. These measures produced excellent results. Thanks these new processes, cheese production grew exponentially and cheddar became one of the stars of Quebec’s agricultural economy.
In 1881, Édouard Barnard and Jean-Charles Chapais (son) founded the first cheese making school in North America, at Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska. Eleven years later, the first Canadian dairy school opened in Saint-Hyacinthe. The school provided education in the most up-to-date techniques in bacteriology, nutrition and chemistry. Canada was one of the first countries to apply pasteurization and enact legislation to improve safety in the dairy industry.
At the turn of the 20th century, thanks to improvements in transportation and refrigeration, millions of boxes of Quebec cheese were shipped annually to the British Isles. The English considered Quebec cheddar to be the best in the world.
Diversification of cheeses in Quebec
For a long time, cheddar was the dominant feature in the Quebec cheese landscape, except for Oka Cheese, made by the Trappistes Monks in Oka starting in 1893. It was immigrants from Italy, Greece and Germany, after the World Wars, who introduced Quebecers to mozzarella, ricotta, feta, marbled cheese and many other types. Demand put pressure on producers to innovate. The monks of the abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, for example, created Bleu l’Ermite in 1943. Then, in the 1970s, dozens of artisanal cheese makers and micro-cheese manufacturers started to use cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk to fabricate many specialty cheeses. At the same time, the Latin and epicurean heritage of Quebecers was awakening, leading to an increasingly diverse cheese market.
Today, Quebec’s many gourmet trails encourage you to buy an astonishing variety of excellent cheeses. Visitors can go directly to welcoming artisanal cheese factories or buy products in specialized shops and fine groceries stores.