There are nine hours and three mountain passes separating Creston, B.C., from Vancouver. Getting to Calgary involves a trip around the Rockies. Cheeses made at the Kootenay Alpine Cheese Co. in Creston, population 5,201, have a long trip to the nearest markets. Luckily, they age well. Cheese makers Denise and Wayne Harris have 18 years of dairy farming experience and are in their third year of producing cheese. "It's become quite the family adventure," says Ms. Harris, who adds the idea began more as "an empty-nest or midlife crisis venture" for her and her husband, but now even their children have gotten involved.
Nostrala, one of three cheeses they produce, is styled after the classic Italian cheese fontina, traditionally made in the Italian Alps. Nostrala's aroma is full with sharp, fruity, fermented notes. The texture is addictive with a supple, pleasing chewiness. The first bite hits you with rich savoury intensity. There's a sharpness at the edges of the tongue and subtle notes of herbs and fruit. The flavours transition smoothly from milder to more pronounced, and the linger lasts long enough to let you appreciate the cheese's complexity before fading away.
The Harrises' dairy farm became certified organic three years ago, but the couple had been evolving to an organic practice over the past nine years by composting, grazing the cattle and using more homeopathic remedies.
They started to make cheese to showcase their high-quality organic milk. The appeal of Alpine cheeses (raw milk cheeses made from herds grazing on fresh grasses) came from a passion for the type of cheese as well as its practicality. Raw milk flavours can develop to their best potential in an aged cheese and the Harris family felt it was a style lacking on the Canadian market. Finally, firmer, aged cheeses have a longer shelf life and are more easily transported.
With no experience other than a cheese making course Mr. Harris took at Washington State University in 2005, their journey began. Two years were spent on the phone and e-mailing with a cheese consultant who helped them design their plant. The couple's knowledge grew with trips to Vermont, France, Italy and Switzerland to visit other cheese-making experts. Ms. Harris laughs and says that "learning about cheese is always what our holiday is."
Nostrala is made from fresh milk. Culture and vegetarian rennet is added and when the curd sets, it is cut, washed and cooked (heated to firm the texture and expel whey). The curd is then pumped into a mould, where it is prepressed, still covered in whey, for about 20 minutes. Next comes the final pressing (and expelling of moisture) of about five hours and then the exterior of the cheese is dry salted the next day. Nostrala is aged in the ripening room for a minimum three months.
It's a complicated process, but even if you forget the details, you'll remember the flavour. Simply delicious.
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.
On the block
Origin: Creston, B.C.
Milk: organic raw cow
Producer: Kootenay Alpine Cheese Co.
Cheese makers: Denise and Wayne Harris
Type: semi-firm, organic, farmstead, natural rind, pressed, cooked
Notes: aged three to six months, vegetarian rennet
Shape: five-kilogram wheel
Distributors: Cheese of Canada, Benton Brothers, Provincial Fine Foods,
Toronto: University of Toronto Farmer's Market, Thin Blue Line
Hamilton: Cheese Shoppe on Locke
Dundas: Mickey McGuire's
Vancouver: Stong's Market, Jackson's Meat and Deli, Dussa's Ham and Cheese
Victoria: Charelli's Cheese Shop and Delicatessen
Calgary: Blush Lane Organic Market, Janice Beaton Fine Cheese
Edmonton: Planet Organic Market