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Monastery passes on cheese-making method

A Winnipeg couple has been entrusted with a rare Trappist cheese recipe set for extinction

Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak had no idea they’d one day carry on a centuries-old cheese-making method when they paid their first visit to the Trappist Monastery at Holland.

That was two years ago, when the Winnipeg chefs and life partners went out to meet the monk there making a delicious cheese they’d served to clientele with their catering company Loaf and Honey.

Brother Albéric, 83, is the Trappist monk there who has devoted his life to making the monastery’s famous pale-orange washed-rind cheese made with unpasteurized milk.

He’s also the last person in North America making it, at least until now.

He’d put word out in 2015 that he’d show others how, says the couple.

Initially, this was just about learning as much as they could about a beautiful cheese they loved, says Isaak.

“We’d heard he was teaching people and we just thought it would be really cool to learn from him,” she said.

But it soon became clear Brother Albéric was looking for a successor. No one among the few remaining monks at the monastery were offering to keep making the cheese. Some outside the monastery had also expressed interest but eventually declined.

“We hung out with him awhile and talked and realized if we don’t do this it’s dead,” said Peltier.

After some serious soul-searching, they committed.

The elderly monk told them he could only teach Peltier directly since monastery rules did not permit Rachel from entering the area where the cheese was made. Peltier was told to instruct her himself.

So began their apprenticeship, and a transfer of knowledge beyond the monastery’s walls. It would have been unimaginable in another time.

Long history

Monks in Europe have made this cheese for centuries and the Manitoba monks carried on the tradition, as part of the pace of life at Holland, since relocating here in the early 1970s.

The method is said to have been a Christmas gift to the Manitoba monks in 1918 when the monastery was still located in St. Norbert at Winnipeg.

If all goes as Peltier and Isaak expect, 2018 will see this cheese become a signature product of their own making.

They know it’s a monumental undertaking. For starters, it’s no small feat learning a procedure others spent a lifetime mastering. Nor is transferring a traditional method and recipe from old to new facilities. Adding to the complexity of it all is that this is cheese made with unpasteurized milk, which poses a higher risk for causing foodborne illness and that has everyone being extra cautious about how it will be done.

Provincial food inspectors are working with them as they construct and equip a small-scale specialized cheese plant, which will be located on Peltier’s parents’ rural property at Woodlands. The couple, in the meantime, is familiarizing with all the regulations they must abide by, including sourcing and transporting unpasteurized milk for the product.

A dairy farmer is lined up to supply it but they cannot take delivery of any milk until they’re in approved dairy-processing facilities. In early January the couple was awaiting confirmation from provincial authorities to temporarily use inspected facilities in a community kitchen at Warren to start cheese production.

Big challenge

If it all sounds incredibly daunting, that’s because it is.

“It’s a mix. Excited. Nervous. Sometimes overwhelmed,” says Isaak of how they’re feeling about what they’ve taken on.

“There’s a lot of frustrations and highs and lows,” adds Peltier. “It’s rewarding knowing that Brother Albéric has entrusted us with this and has a lot of faith in us, but there’s a lot of pressure. When we make that first wheel of cheese I think we’ll be able to take a little more of a breath.”

Citing privacy reasons, no one from Manitoba Agriculture or the Office of the Chief Veterinarian could speak to what Peltier and Isaak are doing, but Peltier says provincial staff tell them they’re good candidates for this given their extensive understanding of food safety regulation from operating their catering company.

Everyone involved knows they have to get this right, he continued.

“We’re breaking ground on an industry that isn’t there in Manitoba,” Peltier said. “We’re going to be the example.”

The couple hopes to launch their first cheese later this year. They haven’t chosen a name for their own product yet. That won’t be easy either. They aren’t allowed to call it fromage de la trappe. They wanted to name it after Brother Albéric but he’s told them they can’t do that either.

“So we’re still kind of narrowing it down,” said Peltier. “We’re trying to find a name that will keep it close to the church and its history and where it came from, but won’t get us in trouble with the Vatican.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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