Eighty-three-year-old monk Brother Albéric says that if you stacked all the cheese he's made in his life, the pile would reach up to heaven.
Every morning, the monk is in the kitchen at the Notre Dame des Prairies monastery near Holland, Man., by 8:30 a.m., crafting fresh wheels of fromage de la trappe — cheese in the Trappist style, made with unpasteurized milk. At that point, he's already been awake for hours, after getting up at 3:30 a.m. to sing and pray with the four other elderly monks who are part of the Trappist order at the monastery.
He's in the dim cellar by 10 or 10:30, handwashing dozens of the 10-pound wheels in a special brine as they age, in silent, spiritual contemplation.
He's the last person in North America who makes the cheese using the traditional Trappist techniques — but he won't be for very much longer.
"For me, it's the will of God," the monk said. "I'm old, I'm tired, I [have] nobody.… It's time to finish."
After 60 years, Brother Albéric is ready to stop making cheese, and he found a pair of Winnipeg chefs who say they want to take on his tradition.
'This cheese is alive'
Married couple Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak have worked in Winnipeg kitchens for 20 years and 19 years respectively, and run a catering company called Loaf and Honey.
Peltier stumbled upon Brother Albéric's cheese through one of his suppliers six or seven years ago, he said. He liked the deep, dark, rich flavours of the unpasteurized cheese.
"This cheese is alive," Peltier said. "It's got flavour, it develops, it's got character because it hasn't been pasteurized."
Later, he read an article about Brother Albéric's lifelong devotion to the craft and he was intrigued. A year ago, he and Isaak started thinking seriously about taking on cheesemaking full-time, after a trip to the wineries and creameries in B.C.
Since then, Brother Albéric has been grooming the pair to begin their own practice, training Peltier in the monastery and instructing him to relay the information to Isaak, who isn't allowed in the back of the monastery because she's a woman.
They're building a cheese factory and cement "cave" to age the cheese just like the monk does in the rural municipality of Woodlands, just northwest of Winnipeg, and hope to have their first wheels ready for sale by mid-January. De Luca's, a Winnipeg specialty food store, has already placed an order for 300 wheels per month and chefs from various restaurants have expressed interest, too, Peltier said.
They've been instructed by the province to take a proper training course, offered in B.C., to produce the unpasteurized cheese, Peltier said.
"It's a little daunting and we get a little nervous but, you know, we're excited about it and we feel it's a passion thing for us," he said.
"This recipe dates back to the 1700s and Brother Albéric's the last man in North America to make this cheese in this style, and we feel very honoured and kind of privileged that we get to do this and keep going and spread it."
Quality over quantity
For Brother Albéric, the handover has been a lifetime in the making.
The Quebec native left his family and home just west of Montreal and entered the Trappist monastery near Oka, Que., when he was 16.
Four years later, he started making cheese — because, he says, he didn't have a choice. All the novices spent their mornings milking cows and making cheese. They used an unpasteurized recipe he says originated with 18th-century monks in Yugoslavia, which was shared with a French monk and finally passed on to the Quebec monastery as a Christmas gift in 1918.
Brother Albéric has been making it the same way ever since, he said, even though the Quebec monastery stopped making its own cheese decades ago. He volunteered to come to Manitoba in 1967 to help out the Prairie branch of the monastery, and helped establish a new traditional cheese factory to replace one that was destroyed in the 1950 Red River flood.
Some European monasteries have altered the recipe to include pasteurized milk so they can sell the cheese on a larger scale, he said, but he doesn't think much of the flavour.
"The [pasteurized] cheese tastes [like] nothing, smell nothing. They lose the quality for the quantity to make some money," he said. "I prefer to have a small cheese factory, not produce so much, and to have a good cheese than to have a big quantity of cheese tasting [like] nothing."
As he got older, he started looking for someone to take up the mantle when he retired. Monastic leadership wasn't interested, he said, and no young monks materialized to teach — and that's where Peltier and Isaak came in.
"We've got kids and bills to pay, and we feel this is a good way to set ourselves up. It's a niche that … no one's delved into and looked at," Peltier said. "There's a big demand for unpasteurized cheese."
The next stage
When their cheese plant is up and running in Woodlands, Peltier and Isaak plan to make cheese in the cellar and sell jams, preserves and baked goods made from the leftover whey in a bakery at the front.
"We're not looking to take over anything or whatever. We want to keep it a niche, artisanal thing," Peltier said.
They haven't pinned down a name for the cheese yet — fromage de la trappe is off the table because it's associated with the monastery, and Brother Albéric told them they can't name it after him, like they wanted to.
But they've got a Winnipeg distributor, and they're already planning meals for their catering business that incorporate the cheese. They're also considering multiple flavours with local ingredients like mushrooms, fruit and beer.
As for Brother Albéric, after a lifetime in the business, he said he's ready to move on.
"I really don't care, because I know everything has to have an end," he said.
Peltier said he's excited to start educating more Winnipeggers on the cheese and the tradition.
"I've got to spend a lot of time with Brother Albéric. He's 83 years old. He's been in the monastery life since he's been 16," Peltier said.
"To stay with someone and listen to him — and he's been making cheese for 60 years, and he's still passionate about it — you can't help but kind of carry that on and take it on."