On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 1893, Brother Alphonse Juin knocked on the door of the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (known as Oka Abbey) in Deux-Montagnes, Que. The monastery was struggling, unable to make ends meet, and Brother Alphonse had been sent from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine in France (from which the Oka monks originated) with a recipe for Port-du-Salut cheese that might help them. Brother Alphonse tweaked and adjusted the Port-du-Salut recipe, creating a unique Quebec cheese that went on to win first prize at the Montreal Exhibition that same year and has since become a Canadian classic.
Oka, a surface-ripened, semi-soft cheese, has the typical orange rind and expected pungency of the washed-rind style. It's buttery and creamy with mellow, nutty notes. The circumstances surrounding Oka's creation in 1893 are also a reminder of the tenacity and connectivity of the monastic community. This was a time when travelling even 50 kilometres would be a considerable challenge. The determination of the Bellefontaine Abbey to help the Canadian monks "is thrilling and captivating," says Daphne Zepos, co-owner of the Cheese School in San Francisco. "I picture [the monastic community]like a pulsing organism with an incredible energy."
The rhythm of cheese-making combined well with the monastic life – it allowed time in between work for prayer and the divine lectures, Ms. Zepos explains. It was humble work that was a form of meditation and a pathway to God. Skills were passed from generation to generation.
In 1918 the Oka recipe was shared with the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of the Prairies in Holland, Man., but it was not until 1983, when agriculture could no longer sustain them, that the recipe was used. In the early years, Brother Albéric, the Manitoba cheese-maker, sent a sample of his cheese to the Quebec monks at the Oka Abbey. They wrote back saying something was "missing," passing onto him a detailed notebook left by Brother Oswald who had been president of the Oka Dairy from 1924 to 1958.
In the notebook were specific aging techniques (that created Oka's rich and aromatic quality) that were so sacred to Brother Oswald he had written, "if you stop making cheese one day or you no longer find these notes useful, don't give them to anyone, burn them. Do not reveal the secret." This new cheese, made using Oka techniques, is known as Fromage de la Trappe and is still being produced in small batches at the abbey. Available only in Manitoba, if you can get your hands on a piece you'll find it generally more pungent and a little fuller-flavoured than the Quebec Oka.
In 1981, Agropur, a large dairy co-operative headquartered in Longueil, Que., became the sole producers of Oka when the Oka monks sold them the original recipe. Eric Korn, product manager for Agropur's fine cheese division, says that the cheese is still made in the same facility and ripened in the same aging rooms. Most of the staff have been making the Oka for more than 25 years – about 30 per cent have worked with the monks themselves. These older workers still remember the hand signals that the monks (who worked in silence during designated hours) would use to signify they had to go flip a cheese or wash it with brine. Parts of the process are now mechanized, but a cheese-maker still decides when a cheese is ripe or sticks his finger in the coagulated milk (gel) to judge if it is ready to be cut.
Just like the "secrets" from Father Oswald's notebook, though an official recipe exists, many techniques are not written down, they are passed along through cheese-makers. To maintain the proper microclimate in one of the ripening areas, the cheese-makers know exactly which corner of the room needs to be dampened with water. This kind of detail is not typical of a large-scale production, demonstrating the importance of human involvement, says Mr. Korn, and the importance of the environment is part of the ingredients.
Agropur's regular Oka is mild, fruity and aged only 18 to 21 days. But for a taste of the original recipe look for the "Oka Classique" (orange label). It's sitting by my elbow as I type and I am surrounded by enticing, soft, barny aromas. Aged longer (minimum 60 days) it has a darker copper rind and a bolder flavour, well balanced and with a lovely, buttery linger.
I'm so grateful Brother Alphonse made the trip to Canada all those years ago.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.