Jen Henderson is a journalist breaking news in the capital region. She is a staff reporter at the St. Albert Gazette and  covers provincial and federal politics, crime and court. 

Cultivating local cheese culture

Cultivating local cheese culture

Feeling peckish and in the mood for some fermented curd?

Satisfying a cheesy craving no longer requires a trip to the grocery store. Thanks to the internet and classes with expert hobbyists, it is easier than ever to make cheese in the comfort of your own home.

Canada's other St. Albert, Saint Albert Que., is known for its cheese. There is also St-Albert Cheese Co-operative, a cheese production company that has been churning out cheddars since 1894 in Ontario.

But in St. Albert, Alta., cheese culture is still a cottage industry.

At the Dig-In festival, St. Albert's horticulinary celebration, a cheese-making hobbyist taught a class of about 20 people how to churn their very own curds at home.

Jon Billiau, a Belgian expat, instructed a group of St. Albert foodies who eagerly wanted to learn the basics of creating their own curds.

Billiau began his cheese making journey only a few years ago. In Belgium he lived next to a European cheese shop, but found once he made the move to Canada he could not find the cheese selection he desired.

“After being frustrated for a couple months I started to think, ‘how hard could this be to make myself?', so I started looking into it and ordered a little kit online and that kind of snowballed into a bigger thing,” Billiau said.

Once he began, he realized it wasn't quite as easy as he had originally thought. After his first couple of failed attempts Billiau consulted the creator of the cheese-making kit for advice and eventually ordered a cheese-making book online. It took Billiau seven attempts before he was able to create a product that tasted and looked like cheese.

Since then, Billiau has become one of the experts in the local community of cheese makers. He has a specialty fridge in his home with temperature and humidity controls dedicated to aging cheese. In his spare time he teaches his skills to eager artisans.

Although it may seem difficult to create the perfect soft and creamy brie, cheese is said to have been created by pure happenstance.

The creation of cheese predates written history, but it is assumed to have been created during the transport of dairy. The milk was stored in the stomachs of mammals who are from the ruminant family. These mammals acquire nutrients by fermenting plant-based food in a specialized stomach full of microbes before digestion.

The milk stored in these stomachs full of rennin and microbes is speculated to have resulted in the first creation of curds.

Historians cannot pinpoint the exact moment cheese became part of culture, but pottery found in modern day Switzerland from 6,000 BCE is speculated to be historical cheese strainers. The first concrete evidence of cheese making dates back to 5,500 BCE out of Poland. Although, according to Arab legends, cheese was well known among the Sumerians and was discovered by an Arab trader who used animal stomachs for transport.

In the thousands of years since then, cheese has only grown in popularity and infused much of the culinary world with gouda, brie and parmesan.

In 2014 Canadians consumed 12.4 kg of cheese per capita. France lead in consumption with 26.7 kg per capita while Americans only had a slight lead at 15.5 kg consumed per capita.

Despite the popularity in the western world, cheese is still something that is rarely made at home. Recipes for cookies or canning get passed down through generations, but rarely do you hear of a grandmother's coveted cheese recipe being shared.

In Billiau's classes, he hopes to change that.

“I think people want to know where their food comes from and they want their food to be more healthy,” Billiau said. “Our parents' generation was the quick and easy and we ended up with this whole line of boxed stuff. It's harder to find baking soda than it is to find instant cake mix.”

Patty Mucha and Leanne Egeland, two sisters who attended Billiau's class, think the popularity of home-made products, like cheese, can be attributed to the rise in artisan culture.

The class was their first attempt at making cheese, but they were impressed with how easy the process was. Over the course of two hours the class made their own queso fresco style cheese out of just a few ingredients and were able to add spices like salt, garlic and thyme to customize the flavour to their own palate.

Mucha said that making cheese was so easy it was something she planned to do at home.

“You can actually whip that up when you put in a load of laundry and then you've got something to serve,” Mucha said.

Despite the enthusiasm from the class, the cheese-making community is still small in the region. When Billiau began making cheese several years ago, he stumbled on to a local group called The League of YEG Home Cheese Makers. Through this community of cheese-making hobbyists, Billiau was able to learn more tips and tricks to hone his skills.

The group gathered frequently to share and sample their home made cheeses but it has slowly faded since the group's head cheese, Ian Treuer, decided to go pro and open his own commercial artisan cheese company out of Smoky Lake, Alta.

Although he has learned a lot in the three years he has been cooking up curds, Billiau says cheese is still one of the more difficult things to make at home.

“It's milk and it's live, so it's always different,” he said. “Even if I try to make something a lot of the time I will end up with something different than I intended.”

But part of what Billiau loves about making cheese is the process.

“It's about finding out about this process that we've been doing for 10,000 years is something that you can still do. You don't have to rely on the supermarket. Learn and explore and discover and you will make something new.”

Billiau now teaches that process to eager students on evenings and weekends, while he is not working at his human resource job at a construction company. He says it is easy to start making cheese at home by just searching the Internet for a recipe and trying out the process.

“It's intimidating, but it's fairly easy to get started,” Billiau said. “It's all about the mindset.”

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