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On the Quebec cheese trail Add to ...

Sure, we've got spectacular scenery and untamed wilderness, but with the country's burgeoning wine regions and regional cuisines drawing international accolades, Canada has a lot to offer the travelling gourmand

There are endless options for food lovers who want to spend their leisure time eating and drinking in Canada. But cheese lovers would be hard pressed to find a better destination in North America than Quebec.

Once known primarily for its cheddar and Trappist cheeses (most people in Canada have sampled a slice of Oka), there are close to 300 varieties being produced in the province today. With their own names and distinct regional characteristics, cheeses such as Le Migneron de Charlevoix, Pied-de-Vent and Lechevalier Mailloux have garnered international accolades as well as top prizes at all three of the Canadian Dairy Bureau's competitions. Quebec's best cheeses are renowned for their high quality and diversity, including varieties made with raw cow's, goat's or sheep's milk that are comparable in style and taste to France's illustrious fromages au lait cru.

From Abitibi to the Gaspé, from the Eastern Townships to Charlevoix, Quebec has become a cheese-lover's paradise. What's more, new producers are emerging every year, so much so that the province now has its own "Route Gourmande des Fromages Fins du Quebec," a circuit geared to helping cheese aficionados discover 50 "cheeseries" in 14 regions.

With only a handful of varieties available outside the province (production is usually small and only a few cheese makers are accredited to sell outside the province), gourmet thrill-seekers can discover several unknown brands that can be purchased on sight for about one-third less than their retail prices.

Best of all, this tasting route, unlike wine-tasting tours, is accessible and educational for the whole family. All of the listed producers offer tastings, many include picnicking facilities, and more than half give tours and/or video presentations. In general, there is no charge for visiting. The cheese-making facilities are strictly off-limits due to hygiene codes, but some establishments offer a glimpse of the fabrication process through viewing windows, and many of the barns are open, allowing the public direct contact with goats, sheep, cows or calves.

For a day trip from Montreal, there are three cheese makers worth visiting who all produce very different cheeses: Fromagerie Ruban Bleu (goat's cheese) and Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs (raw cow's milk cheese) in the Montérégie region, and the magnificent L'Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (blue cheese) in the Eastern Townships. Located about 25 minutes from downtown Montreal, Fromagerie Ruban Bleu in St-Isidore produces some of the province's finest goat's cheese. Early-morning visitors can see the cheese being made through a large window in the boutique or purchase a wide assortment of cheeses, including the popular P'tite Chevrette and a new raw-milk variety not yet sold commercially, along with goat's milk soap and -- of all things -- bubble bath.

Many farms produce a number of cheeses with the same milk.

Children are encouraged to visit the well-behaved baby goats in the barn next door, and those interested in additional information can watch a video that details the production of the cheese and the upkeep of the animals.

Thirty minutes east, near St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, is Au Gré des Champs. Owners Daniel Gosselin and Suzanne Dufresne epitomize the new generation of Quebec cheese makers. For just over two years, they have been producing two superb cow's milk cheeses, the D'Iberville and the Gré des Champs, which are not only raw milk but organic.

Their boutique also carries most of the province's other top artisan cheeses, and many local products including jellies and vinegar.

Ms. Dufresne is often on hand to answer questions about the cheese-making process, as well as to recommend local restaurants and events in the region.

A five-minute drive north is the renowned vineyard Vignoble Dietrich Jooss, which offers reasonably priced, cheese-compatible white, red and icewines. There's a saying in gourmet circles that products from the same region go well together, and a pairing of Mr. Jooss's wine and Ms. Dufresne's cheese prove it true.

When travelling the cheese trail, be sure the long drives are worth your while. Some of the top names listed on the map, such as the goat cheese manufacturer Tournevant and Fromagerie du Champ à la Meule, don't offer much besides on-site stores. To avoid visiting a factory instead of a farm, call first to enquire whether it is a family-owned-and-run business producing a "fromage fermier."

L'Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac doesn't offer tours, videos or petting barns, but you can enjoy its cheeses on-site and the picturesque setting complete with views of the expansive grounds and the rolling hills surrounding Lake Memphramagog.

Benedictine monks from France started making cheese in Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in the early 1940s and continue to produce outstanding varieties such as their blue cheeses: Bleu Ermite and the award-winning Bleu Bénédictin.

Visitors are welcome to attend morning mass or afternoon vespers, and for those wishing to explore this area of the Townships further, there are numerous bed and breakfasts and casual restaurants in the vicinity.

Though a cheese-only sojourn may be difficult because of the long distances between farms, a visit to one or several cheeseries would enrich a tour of any of the regions. Combined with stays in local inns and B & Bs, a vacation highlighted by cheese tastings is sure to increase the visitor's appreciation of Quebec's multifaceted gourmet landscape.

Lesley Chesterman is the Fine Dining Critic for the Montreal Gazette. She is also the author of the award-winning book Basic Techniques: Baking and Pastry and most recently Flavourville, the bestselling guide to Montreal's restaurant scene. Quebec cheeses

Some of the best-known and exciting varieties of cheeses from Quebec:

Ciel de Charlevoix: A new blue cheese from award-winning Charlevoix producer, Maison d'affinage Maurice Dufour.

Chevre Noir lait cru: A raw-milk goat's cheese from the Fromagerie Tournevent in Bois-Francs.

Victor & Berthold: A semi-soft, washed-rind raw-milk cheese from the Fromagerie du Champ à la Meule in the Lanaudière.

Ermite Bleu: Fabricated at the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in the Eastern Townships.

Au Gré des Champs: A raw-milk cow's cheese from Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs in Montérégie.

Perron extra-sharp cheddar: Made in the Sauguenay by the Fromagerie Albert Perron.

Mamirolle: Produced in the Bois-Franc region by the Fromagerie Eco-Délices.

Pied-de-Vent: A soft, washed-rind, raw-milk cheese from the Fromagerie Pied-de-Vent in the Magdelene Islands. -- L.C. If you go

Information: The map of the Route Gourmande des Fromages Fins du Quebec is available at Quebec tourist centres or at .

Where to Stay: For accommodations in each region, check out Inns and Bed and Breakfasts in Quebec 2002 (available in bookstores throughout Canada) or visit .

The Fromagerie du Marché Atwater, Fromagerie du Marché de St-Jérôme and La Rumeur Affamée all offer directions to local and regional cheese makers. Cheese shops: Fromagerie du Marché Atwater: 134 rue Atwater, Montreal; (514) 932-4653.

Fromagerie du Marché de St-Jerome: 357 rue Parent, St-Jerome; (450) 436-8469.

La Rumeur Affamée: 15 Principal N., Sutton; (450) 538-1888. Cheese makers: Fromagerie du Ruban Bleu: 449 rang St-Simon, St-Isidore; (450) 454-4405. Open in July and August from Tuesday to Sunday.

Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs: 400 rang St-Edouard, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu; (450) 346-8732. Open Thursday, Friday and weekends.

Vignoble Dietrich Jooss Winery: 407 Grande Ligne, Iberville, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu; (450) 347-6857. Open Tuesday to Sunday, May to December.

L'Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac: Saint-Benoît-du-Lac; (819) 843-4080. Monday to Saturday. -- L.C.

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