If the pandemic has been good for one thing, it’s cheese. Over the past year, new cheese producers on the Prairies have popped up and they are making waves.
Winnipeg’s Joseph Chaeban is equal parts creative and resilient. With a background in dairy production, he opened a namesake ice cream shop – Chaeban Ice Cream – in late 2017. It was odd timing considering the unforgiving Manitoba winter that was swiftly approaching, but locals embraced the artisan ice cream maker, which offered up Middle Eastern-inspired creations that people had never experienced.
Fast forward to spring 2020 and, for obvious reasons, things haven’t been quite the same. With less foot traffic and ever-changing restrictions to small businesses, Mr. Chaeban decided to launch an ice cream subscription service, which proved popular, but come the winter he became especially ingenious and began producing cheese.
“It came to the point where either we launch something new or we go bankrupt,” he says. “I don’t think we would have been able to sustain ourselves [through the winter and spring] by just selling ice cream.”
The ice cream maker explains that cheese making runs in the family. Mr. Chaeban’s father was a cheese maker – making him a second-generation producer – and while growing up, cheese played a part in his day-to-day life.
“Some of my very first memories as a child are waking up and having camembert for breakfast ... every day. So, it’s always been my dream to have my own cheese-making business,” he says.
Chaeban Artisan soft-launched last November with three cheeses: a soft feta, a hard feta and labneh. Mr. Chaeban explains that he chose to make cheeses that reflect his and his wife’s Lebanese and Syrian roots, respectively. Last month, a ricotta was added and there will be other releases later this year.
Cheese production was both natural and easy to incorporate into the existing Chaeban Ice Cream space as he had most of the equipment and approvals to produce dairy products. Creating cheeses with minimal ageing times allowed Mr. Chaeban to keep a steady supply of products and generate much-needed sales.
“We wanted to have cheeses that have a quick turnaround in terms of ageing to help with cash flow. Depending on the product you’re making, ageing can take one week or up to four months before it’s ready for market,” he says.
Not surprisingly, many local restaurants and bakeries have embraced his cheeses, including popular pizza-focused chain Santa Lucia and Goodies Bake Shop. They can also be found in a wide variety of retail and grocery stores in Winnipeg, which is impressive considering that the cheeses are so new to market.
As the weather warms up and ice cream season returns, Mr. Chaeban says people can expect to see some of his cheeses make their way into his unique ice cream flavours as well.
Alberta dairy and cattle producer Nonay Beef/Lakeside Dairy Ltd. is owned and operated by Jeff and Coralee Nonay. A 40-minute drive or so outside Edmonton, their last name is associated with some of the best quality beef a person can get their hands on.
Last fall, the couple decided to add cheese production to their extensive agricultural résumé and created Lakeside Farmstead. The farmer says the inspiration to launch this new leg of his business was not born of the pandemic, but rather inspired by spending time at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, Que.
“Producing milk and transforming milk into cheese are two very different passions and skill sets. For us, finding a skilled cheese maker was just one obstacle,” Mr. Nonay said. “I think it also helps that I’m a bit crazy and have a very supportive and involved wife.”
There are people in Alberta who produce items such as mozzarella and ricotta, but none that have a robust catalogue of cheese quite like Lakeside Farmstead. The Nonays’ head cheese maker, Ian Treuer, creates a wide range of cheeses from cheese curds and an indulgent butter cheese (my personal favourite) to brie and a funky (in a good way) mushroom-infused cheddar that boasts a striking mosaic appearance.
Edmonton restaurants, such as RGE RD and Workshop Eatery, quickly embraced the cheeses as did specialty food shop Meuwly’s and many more small businesses in and around the city.
Lakeside Farmstead recently released a cultured butter and the farmer says that later this summer that Lakeside will be debuting a unique cheddar that’s been aged in its own rendered wagyu tallow.
“There is a lot of excitement around our project and our products. ... The community engagement has been amazing and the support we get as we find our way into the retailers is very appreciated,” Mr. Nonay says.
I’d be remiss not to include one of the most interesting cheese makers on the Prairies, Saskatoon Spruce.
What started out as a passion project in 2017 for Saskatoon’s Kevin Petty, after he learned how to make Trappist cheese from a (now-retired) monk in rural Manitoba, has now become a full-time business.
Mr. Petty uses unpasteurized dairy to create a semi-hard cheese (sometimes referred to as “monk cheese”) that is aged on spruce wood, which gives it a distinctly Prairie finish. Two years ago, he added an applewood-smoked variation to his lineup and also offers a seasonal stout-washed cheese made using beer from 9 Mile Legacy Brewing.
Saskatoon Spruce cheeses are available in more than 20 specialty-food stores and grocers across Saskatchewan.
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