Cheese in Canada

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We can quite confidently date the start of cheesemaking in Canada from the first introduction of cattle by Samuel de Champlain at Québec in either 1608 or 1610. As more settlers arrived, the number of cattle increased. In fact, our Canadienne breed is thought to be descended from cattle brought by settlers from Normandy and Brittany in 1660.

By that time, cheesemaking was already established. French settlers made ripened cheeses according to recipes they had brought with them. In 1630, records suggest, Acadians supplied cheese for the returning French fleet.

A heritage of cheesemaking

The cheesemaking tradition in Canada is double-stranded, woven from our French and English heritage. While French settlers brought with them methods for making soft, ripened cheeses, United Empire Loyalists, fleeing the American Revolution, introduced us to the distinctly British characteristics of Cheddar.

While cheese continued to be made in small hand-made batches and even exported by the 19th century, it was an American, Harvey Farrington, who took the next logical step. Farrington had American technology to set up cheesemaking on a large scale, but first he needed milk - lots of it. Mobilizing his persuasive Yankee ways, Farrington convinced farm women to bring him their milk instead of making their own cheese. Thus was the first Canadian cheese factory, "The Pioneer" opened in Norwich, Ontario, in 1864.

Farrington was simply the first in a coming wave of industrious cheesemakers. By 1867, the year of Confederation, some 200 factories were established in Ontario alone.

First in class

On a fateful day in the spring of 1881, Édouard-André Barnard rolled up his sleeves and commenced cleaning his barn from top to bottom. Once finished scrubbing, he then whitewashed the walls and installed a cheesemaking vat. Thus was born North America's first cheesemaking school, in Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska, Québec.

In 1901, Canada's first dairy school embarked on a modest experiment: the manufacture of Canadian Camembert and Feta. While the experiment was a success, it seems no one wanted to eat the results, which were considered too exotic for the tame palates of the day.

That dairy school, opened in 1892 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, and today an important institution, has been a leading force ever since. It remains the chief centre for research, innovation and experimentation in Canadian cheesemaking - even if it is occasionally ahead of its time.

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