It was a very bad day for the Ontario village of St. Albert on Sunday. And it was an even worse day for poutine lovers everywhere.
At around 9:30 in the morning, fire broke out and destroyed the factory of the St. Albert Cheese Co-operative, a stalwart presence and pride of the village of 650 in Eastern Ontario, southeast of Ottawa. Within hours, a landmark with roots dating back a century and sustained by generations of local dairy farmers, was gone.
The fire not only took the memories of a town with it. It also claimed about $3.5-million worth of cheese, some of it the prized curds reputed to produce some of the finest poutine around – once French fries and gravy are added to create the Quebec-born signature dish.
For the townspeople who watched the centrepiece of the community fall to ashes, it was a demoralizing blow.
“It’s more than the loss of the building. It’s a page of history that’s been ripped out,” said François St. Amour, mayor of the municipality of The Nation, which includes the village of St. Albert. “It’s enormous for our little village. And the curds of St. Albert make the best poutine. I have friends in Alberta and if I don’t bring St. Albert cheese curds when I visit them, I’m in trouble.”
The St. Albert cheese factory is a Franco-Ontarian institution with a long history, getting off the ground as a co-operative in 1894 and predating the famed Desjardins credit-union co-op by a few years. Within the company’s walls was not just machinery, but early treasures, including minutes of meetings, letters and black-and-white photos of horse-pulled milk carts. Some of the 120 employees thrown out of work by the fire are their family’s fifth generation to work at the plant.
“Sometimes I get a lump in my throat, and I cry like a baby,” said Réjean Ouimet, who retired as general manager in December but returned this week to help the company. His great-grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Ouimet, began as a founding member at the co-operative.
“It’s gone, all gone,” Mr. Ouimet said. “All I can do is think about the memories.” He said he believed the fire, wihich caused about $25-million in damages, started inside an older wooden structure; the cause is under investigation.
The company says it will rebuild, and in the meantime it hopes to restart supplying cheese within two weeks with the help of its production plant in Mirabel, Que. The company sells across the country, and is a major supplier in Eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec; it is calling on other suppliers to fill the temporary supply gap. The co-operative sells more than a million bags of cheese curds annually, Mr. Ouimet said.
For some, however, there’s no fast replacement for St. Albert’s product.
About 200 kilograms of St Albert cheese curds are delivered each week to La Pataterie Hulloise in Gatineau, north of Ottawa. Owner Richard Rivers says he knows from the squeak when he takes a bite in the morning that it’s fresh, and perfect for his poutine.
“It’s about the best cheese in the region,” Mr. Rivers said on Monday from his restaurant on St. Joseph Boulevard. He’s turning temporarily to another supplier but will buy St. Albert’s cheese as soon as it is in production again. “When I heard about the fire I said, no, it can’t be. We’re faithful customers. The cheese is the freshest around.”
The company, a major employer in the region, is also meeting with employees to discuss their future.
The company plans to rebuild as quickly as possible and on Monday decided that, despite the setback, the show will go on this August. That’s when the town holds its 20th annual Festival de la Curd and the town turns into Canada’s own Curdistan. The date is months off, but Mr. Ouimet is determined: “We’re going to be back. And we’re going to have a party.”