Reviving an Endangered Cow to Create a Uniquely Canadian Cheese
“So, now do you want to taste some of our cheese?”
Tour guide Robert Benoit, a specialist in the history of dairies in Québec, has just spent an early-autumn afternoon showing us around the bucolic grounds of the Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie St. Paul. Located about 90 minutes east of Québec City, the dairy is an essential stop for any food-loving agro-tourist, and forms part of the Charlevoix Flavor Trail, an 89-mile route which meanders along the St. Lawrence River. The trail consists of a loose alliance of farmers, restaurants, and producers specializing in all things local - honey, lamb, charcuterie, foie gras, and of course, cheese.
A smiling Benoit emerges from behind the counter of the dairy’s cafe, arms laden with trays of the dairy’s five artisan cheeses. Founded in 1948 by the Labbé family, in its early days Laiterie Charlevoix was focused solely on fluid milk production, but under the guidance of the fourth-generation, including innovative brother Jean and cheese makers Dominique and Simon, the dairy has evolved into a cheese producer.
While all of the five cheeses Benoit brings out are worth lingering over, two in particular stand out: Le 1608 and the brand-new L’Origine de Charlevoix.
Le 1608 was launched in 2008 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec. A washed-rind semi-firm cheese, aged for 4 to 6 months, it’s similar to a typical Savoyard cheese such as a Beaufort, with a pale buttery yellow paste and a nutty, ever-so-slightly barn-y flavor.
In contrast, L’Origine is a soft mixed-rind that’s aged for 20 to 30 days, and is very similar to a Reblochon—creamy, with a pleasant tang.
But it’s not merely the flavor that makes these cheeses so special, it’s the story behind their creation: both are made entirely with the milk of the endangered Canadienne cow, the oldest breed of cattle in Canada and the only breed developed in North America. Only one other cheese, the Pied-de-Vent, can claim this distinction.
The Canadienne cow has deep roots in Québec, arriving with Champlain in 1608. In 1900, the breed numbered roughly half a million, but thanks in part to an industry that favored milk quantity over quality, they have dwindled to dangerously low numbers in recent years. There are currently fewer than 500 in all of Québec, but the Labbés, in conjunction with local farmers and geneticists, hope to change that and save the cows from extinction.
While saving an endangered species is a laudable goal on its own, the Labbés believe that the Canadienne can actually help small family farmers. For one thing, the Canadienne is the anti-factory cow, as the breed simply will not thrive in a herd larger than about forty. Plus, according to Benoit, “she is easy to maintain. She is gentle and smaller [than most modern breeds of dairy cow]. The Canadienne can really help take the stress out of dairy farming.”
On my visit to the dairy I had the chance to test this theory and pet two bulls. They were indeed gentle, even affectionate, a point Benoit drove home by going into their pen and hand-feeding them.
And there’s another bonus to the breed from a cheesemaker’s perspective. The Canadienne’s milk contains up to 5.5 percent butterfat, nearly twice what a typical Holstein will deliver. More fat means higher cheese yield.
But what about the effect on the flavor of the cheese? As it turns out, that’s not really the point, as the milk’s presence speaks more to issues of terroir and heritage. After my visit, I spoke with Jean Labbé on the phone, and he told me, in his heavily French-inflected English, “The point of the milk is not in the tasting, it’s in the fact that it comes from Canadienne cows. The flavor [of Le 1608] is like a l’Abondance from France. ... But there’s no comparison to any other cheese in Québec.”
Of course, the other cheeses of Laiterie Charlevoix should not be ignored: the Vieux Charlevoix, an aged cheddar; Le Fleurmier, a soft, buttery Brie-style cheese; and the award-winning L’Hercule, a washed rind cheese comparable to a Comté.
But for now at least, it’s likely that Le 1608 and L’Origine will remain the stars of the show. After all, Le 1608 is poised to become the only North American dairy product with its own appellation, a designation from Québec’s Conseil des appellations réservées et des termes valorisants, an organization which provides quality and origin designations similar to France’s AOC. The paperwork has been submitted, and while the process can take up to a year, according to Benoit, “It’s a done deal.”
As head cheese maker Dominique Labbé told me through a translator, his ultimate goal is “making the Charlevoix region the centerpiece for the Canadienne cow.”Story and photos by Tracey (Trix) Middlekauff