Tomme de Grosse Île travels either by boat or by air to reach mainland Quebec from its island home. Contained in its rough, warm brown rind, the cheese has a rugged appearance and looks ready to weather any perilous journey.
The brushed rind has the tactile character of a tree bark, with the top and bottom of the wheel evenly ridged. The interior reveals rich gold paste made from the milk of Brown Swiss cows who eat naturally grown hay from the marshes on the island.
The texture of the cheese is open, with small eyes scattered throughout. The aroma is full, sweet and reminiscent of hay. Aged three to four months, the cheese's flavours are complex, buttery and salty but remain fresh with a bite of acidity. It needs no other companion than some fresh bread and perhaps a pint of beer.
The growing cheese industry on the Île-aux-Grues was created by necessity. The island's inhabitants had originally been exporters of potatoes, but low profits spurred farmers to switch to dairy.
There was only one problem - how to get the milk across the St. Lawrence River to the Quebec mainland. Transportation was limited to a ferry in summer and a small plane in winter. The solution was to turn the island's milk into something more portable - cheese.
In 1976, the community pulled together to form a dairy co-operative of 14 producers. In 1977, production began, although initially cheese making occurred only during the summers. In 1987, the co-op was able to get the winter roads cleared in order to keep the factory open year-round.
Today, the number of members in the co-op has shrunk to five though the volume of milk being turned into cheese has steadily increased.
Fromagerie de l'Île-aux-Grues, which originally produced only cheddar, turned its focus to artisanal cheeses in 2000. The cheese makers started with a soft cheese called Mi-Carême, then added to that category with the decadent Riopelle. In 2004, when they were interested in creating a firmer product, the Tomme de Grosse Île was born.
Tomme de Grosse Île is named to honour the history of Grosse Île, another of the 21 islands that make up the Île-aux-Grues archipelago.
Set up in 1832, the island was an immigration depot that held European migrants, initially to screen them for cholera. During the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1849, the majority of people quarantined there were Irish, fleeing their country to come to Canada.
Arriving weak from lack of nutrition and horrible sanitary conditions, many were already infected with typhus, and the disease became an epidemic. Thousands of these immigrants died and are buried on the island, which is also known as the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada. The green, orange and white colours on the Tomme de Grosse Île label are symbolic of the Irish Flag.
As rich in history as in flavour, Tomme de Grosse Île can captivate the conversation as well as the palate.
On the block
Cheese: Tomme de Grosse Île
Origin: Chaudière-Appalaches region, Quebec
Producer: Fromagerie de l'Île-aux-Grues
Milk: thermalized cow, Brown Swiss
Type: semi-firm, unpressed, natural rind
Shape: 2-kilogram wheel
Distributor : Provincial Fine Foods, Plaisirs Gourmets, Benton Brothers
Fromagerie Atwater, Yannick Fromagerie, Fromagerie Hamel
Toronto: Whole Foods, Thin Blue Line, A Taste of Quebec
Ottawa: Farm Boy
Guelph: Ouderkirk and Taylor
Peterborough: Chasing the Cheese
Vancouver: Benton Brothers
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.