Winnipeg chefs get monastic blessing, government approval for cheesemaking
Last Trappist cheesemaker and Manitoba Agriculture both give thumbs up to couple taking over production
Two Winnipeg chefs carrying on the centuries-old tradition of making unpasteurized Trappist cheese finally have the blessing of the monk who taught them how to make it — and approval from the provincial government to sell it.
"It was a definite relief when [Manitoba Agriculture] said, 'It's good, you've passed, you can sell your wheels,'" Rachel Isaak said during a recent cheese delivery to De Luca's Specialty Foods in Winnipeg.
"[We took] a great big breath and [had] a good bottle of wine."
"It's been a very long process with lots of ups and downs," added her husband, Dustin Peltier. "We're dealing with raw milk and there are extra precautions that need to be taken so it's safe."
Isaak, Peltier and Peltier's father have been learning the tricks of the trade for more than a year from a Trappist monk named Brother Albéric.
He gave them wooden shelves from his original cheese cellar at the Notre Dame des Prairies monastery near Holland in southwestern Manitoba, along with a special salt-and-culture brine used to wash the cheese every other day.
The couple formally took over production when the aging monk closed his cellar last January.
"We have to stop making the cheese because … we don't have young brothers," Brother Albéric said last winter.
"I'm getting older and it's too much for myself.… Now before I get sick, I want to pass recipe on to someone else," he said.
"For me, it's the will of God. I'm old, I'm tired, I [have] nobody.… It's time to finish."
Brother Albéric, 83, had been making this cheese since he was 20 years old, starting at the Trappist monastery near Oka, Que.
When that cheese cellar was sold and the process changed to use pasteurized milk, he got permission to bring the traditional recipe to Manitoba.
Canadian cheesemakers can use raw cow, goat and sheep milk as long as the cheese is aged at least 60 days and doesn't contain bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.
Every morning, after prayers and breakfast, Brother Albéric would silently hand-wash dozens of the nearly five-kilogram wheels in his dim cheese cellar — the last person in North America making the cheese with the traditional Trappist techniques.
But with no new monks joining the brotherhood, he realized he had to pass along the tradition and began grooming Peltier and Isaak, who run a catering company called Loaf and Honey, to begin their own practice.
Peltier stumbled upon Brother Albéric's cheese through one of his suppliers a few years ago, he said, and liked the rich flavours of the unpasteurized cheese.
Brother Albéric trained Peltier in the monastery and instructed him to relay the information to Isaak, who wasn't allowed in the back of the monastery because she's a woman.
This spring, Peltier and Isaak made the first wheel of cheese in their newly constructed cheese cellar, on Peltier's parents' farm just north of Winnipeg.
Pilgrimage to the monastery
In June, they packed up their children and parents, and a cooler full of cheese, driving nearly two hours to the Notre Dame des Prairie Monastery "so Brother Albéric can try it and see if we've done it right, or if we're off the mark," Isaak said at the time.
"It's an art," Peltier added. "As much as it is you have to do A, B and C, you still have to finesse it and because there is the cultures, it's unpasteurized, it's still alive."
They held their breath as Brother Albéric touched, smelled and tasted the cheese.
"A good cheese when you bite, you have the trace of your teeth," the monk said in between bites.
"It's good — I like it.… I like when it's creamy like this," he said, cutting into the cheese, taking a deep whiff, then biting into a small piece.
"Taste good, smell good, texture is good," he pronounced. "Perfect. Keep going."
"Yeah! Good! Perfect," Peltier said with a look of relief on his face.
"We were confident but still a bit nervous," he admitted later.
"I'm very happy because … if it was not able to keep going, everything would collapse. Now I'm happy," Brother Albéric said.
Provincial approval process
That blessing received, the couple had to get the provincial government's approval to sell the cheese in Manitoba.
Since spring, they have been sending samples to a lab to test for E. coli, listeria, salmonella and staphylococcus aureus.
They finally got word Sept. 19 that the cheese is safe to eat. They're approved to use it in their catering business, and sell it to people like Paolo De Luca, purchasing manager at De Luca's Specialty Foods.
"There's a huge demand for it," De Luca said last week as he cut one of the wheels into slices and wrapped it up for sale.
"It's a local cheese, it's got a beautiful aroma, it's very creamy, very earthy-tasting, very unique and there's really nothing like it on the market," he said.
"I was lucky enough to be one of the first testers of one of the first batches of the cheese. The taste has not changed. It's phenomenal."
Peltier and Isaak plan to ramp up their production now and De Luca is looking forward to a more regular supply.
"We were selling quite a bit when the monks were making it.… People have been dying to have it back in their shelves," he said.
"On grilled cheese it's unbelievable. If you're mixing it in your mac and cheese, it gives a nice kick to it, a nice flavour," and on its own, it's "perfect with a nice glass of wine and fresh bread," he said.
The Winnipeg chefs are not allowed to use the old name — Fromage de la Trappe — Brother Alberic's name, or to reference the Trappist monks in any way.
They finally came up with a name that respects the history of this cheese — Prairie Tradition.
With files from Aidan Geary.