Travel

Tasting Quebec cheeses at their source

Claudie Ouellette cutting from one of her popular Swiss-style cheeses for Nicolas Perrault and his friend at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Warwick, Quebec.
Claudie Ouellette cutting from one of her popular Swiss-style cheeses for Nicolas Perrault and his friend at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Warwick, Quebec.Credit:  

According to our map, Ferme Caron was supposed to be on rue St-jean est, right on the outskirts of Trois-Rivières — an old fur outpost turned industrial center halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. We found it on rue Louis-de-France. The farm has not moved. The street had been renamed.

A sign by the road advertised goat cheese, but we got the notion that few people stopped in. Owner Gaétan Caron seemed startled to see us as we came up his drive.

Caron spoke little English, and we no French, so everybody used small words and big gestures. We learned that he’d been making goat cheese for 25 years, that his goats were certified organic and fed forage from his farm, that he mostly sold wholesale to restaurants and markets, and that his daughter, who lived next door, kept bees.

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Had we spoken better French, we would have learned that Caron was one of the first to make goat cheese in Quebec, learning from books and trial and error, and that the farm had been his grandfather’s.

The shop was just a fridge and Caron wasn’t set up for tasting, so we bought some cheese to try later, and went out to meet the goats.

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Sticking to the highway, it takes three hours to drive from Montreal to Quebec City. My wife and I took three days: to see the scenery, to smell the roses, and to taste the cheese.

Our map was La Route des fromages fins du Quebec, put out by the provincial department of agriculture and the Council of Quebec Dairy Industries, which lists 110 cheese producers and sellers throughout the province.

In Saint-Lambert, a Montreal suburb, Max Dubois runs L’Échoppe des Fromages, the back full of mix-matched chairs and tables. Cappuccinos come with a tower of foam mounded several inches high.

Trained in theater and sociology, Dubois sang loudly and well as he chose a record for the stereo, and before joining us greeted his early morning customers by name. “Always we had a mission,” he said, “to educate everybody . . . and explain the importance of eating true cheese.”

“A true cheese for me, it’s a farmer cheese . . . when the same producers control the cow, the goat or the sheep, the milk, and the production of cheese, and the affinage, the old-fashioned aging. And they control the market.”

Dubois is known as a proponent of Quebec’s raw milk cheeses, a position of politics as much as taste. Raw milk cheeses are favorites in Quebec, but with two listeria outbreaks (one tied directly to Quebec-made cheese) in the past five years, they’ve come under significant scrutiny.

Dubois is still a champion. “It’s better for everything,” he said. “For the economy, for the family, for society, and for the heart. We have true bacterias. For me it’s the taste of terroir. Of the country. We could have a cheese in each place in the country, and each cheese would be different.”

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Fromageries are plotted as points on the map, but there is no one road that connects them. Some points denote shops, others factories. We planned for trial and error.

Our first day we made three stops: a highly-regarded organic creamery, a monastery that sold cheese out of the basement, and the home of a bemused homesteader who told us, from his front porch, that he’d given up cheese making years ago. “These days I make beer,” he said.

The second day, we managed six, starting with Fromagerie La Station. La Station is one of the best known creameries in the province. Though chiefly involved in wholesaling, the farm has a nice roomy shop with its cheeses and other local goods for sale.

As we sampled the semisoft, washed-rind cheeses, aged in large rounds, we could see Simon Pierre Bolduc monitoring an enormous mixing vat of curds.

La Station is run by three Bolduc brothers and their parents, with Simon Pierre in charge of cheese, Vincent cows, and Martin, an engineer, production and marketing.

“Working with my family is very nice — everyone has their own expertise,” said Martin Bolduc. “Of course I may have something to say about the cheese, but Simon Pierre, he has final say.”

At the other end of the building, we peeked through windows into their aging room, marveling at the rounds slowly darkening on long shelves. Out back, Holsteins munched contentedly.

Driving north, we arrived at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Warwick just as the shop was closing, and found that Claudie Ouellette, behind the counter, spoke no English. But customer Nicolas Perrault, home to visit his family, happily lingered to translate.

Perrault walked us through the cheese case making his own footnotes to Ouellette’s descriptions, and once outside, pored over our cheese map, circling a few “must stops.”

Presbytère, which refers to the rectory in which the creamery is headquartered, makes mostly Swiss-style cheeses, including one that mixes sheep and cow’s milk (the only one we had on the trip) and an amazingly pungent, almost spicy blue.

In the summer, Perrault said, “you need to call ahead to reserve your cheese curds, and the lawns out front are covered with picnics.”

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Driving to each cheese maker is an incredibly inefficient way to taste cheeses. En route, we pulled up to an enormous factory and into the headquarters of a local producer that was also, inexplicably, a poutine-pedaling fast food establishment. If it were just cheese we had wanted, we could have stayed in the city. At the cheese shops in Montreal and Quebec City we met many helpful, friendly, and generous cheesemongers happy to share their wares and their knowledge.

But visiting the cheese makers added a dimension beyond nose or texture. Dubois had said that cheese was an expression of identity in Quebec, but the reverse was also true. Driving the lanes, watching the land change from hills to pastures, turning around in lakeside driveways, pointing out houses of unbelievably perfect proportions, all of this mattered. Even metal-clad barns standing almost like sculpture in the fields can be thought of as elements of terroir, and these made the drive all the more worthwhile.

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