About 17 years ago, amidst what she calls a “stupid midlife crisis,” Ruth Klahsen decided she wanted to become a professional cheese maker.
The former chef from Stratford, Ont., looked around for ways to learn the craft. In Canada at that time, cheese making was niche at most, and the best she could find was a four-day course. But cheese is a complicated business, demanding an understanding of history and tradition as well as precise microbiology and biochemistry.
So she turned to Europe. There, she found the wealth of knowledge she was looking for: apprenticeship programs with third- and fourth-generation cheese makers, PhD-level courses on cheese science and an entire institute set up by the French government devoted to the study of cheese.
“Really good European cheese – there’s way more history and education than we have,” she said. In Europe, unlike Canada, there was an established cheese culture, including systems such as the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée, which sets strict guidelines for how cheese is produced and sold in different regions – every detail spelled out down to the type of hay the cows can be given.
Ms. Klahsen worries that this disparity will soon work against her. She used what she learned to help build a successful business back in Ontario, which is now under threat from the European way.
In July, the government is set to more than double the amount of European cheese imported into the country as part of the new Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). This will mean an additional 17,700 tonnes of European cheese – a figure that represents about 4 per cent of current Canadian cheese production.
The Dairy Processors Association of Canada (DPAC) estimates the change could result in the loss of $230-million annually to domestic producers and potentially up to 400 jobs.
“All cheese makers will be impacted by this, whether you’re small, medium or large,” DPAC president Jacques Lefebvre said.
And while the changes seem like good news to consumers who want more variety at the grocery store, some say it could actually have the opposite effect.
“Consumers are sort of sitting here on a double-edged sword,” said Georgs Kolesnikovs, who runs an annual cheese festival in Picton, Ont.
“On the one hand, it’d be nice to get some really sexy Camembert that I normally wouldn’t see in a supermarket here. But on the other hand … I worry that some of those little guys, they’re going to be really endangered,” he said. The smaller producers don’t have a diverse range of other products to turn to in the same way as bigger companies, such as Kraft or Saputo. “I fear that Big Cheese is going to be the big winner here.”
The irony is not lost on those such as Ms. Klahsen who helped to pioneer and popularize European-style cheese making in Canada and now find themselves at risk of being displaced by cheese actually from Europe.
“It is comical. It’s just kind of tragic,” she said. The biggest concern for local cheese makers is not just a question of quality, but price. They say that a variety of factors, including supply management and generous agricultural subsidies in the European Union, mean milk prices and other costs of production are higher in Canada.
“My frustration with the whole thing is that the playing field isn’t even,” Ms. Klahsen said. “Why wouldn’t [customers] buy really good French cheese when it’s way cheaper than my cheese?”
In a statement, an Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada spokesman pointed to two funding programs announced last year aimed at the dairy industry. That funding, totalling $350-million, is aimed at helping dairy farmers and dairy processors to modernize their production systems.
But given that the government has not yet released details on how the CETA changes will be implemented – namely who will be allowed to import the EU products – groups such as DPAC say it’s too soon to know whether such funding will suffice.
The government has also emphasized that this is the first time the import quota for cheese has been increased in more than 40 years, and stressed the benefits of creating access to European markets. But Mr. Lefebvre said most Canadian cheese producers aren’t large enough to compete in the well-established European market.
Most frustrating to the industry is that the changes will take place just as many of the country’s small cheese makers are beginning to make their mark. Until about the 1980s, Canadian cheese often simply meant white or orange. But around that time, a small group of producers in Quebec, including some European immigrants, began introducing new styles of French and Italian cheeses.
Over time, the artisanal and farmstead varieties – the latter meaning that the cows are raised on the same farm where the cheese is produced – became popular, and the number of producers increased. So, too, did the quality.
“All of a sudden, there was Québécois cheese just as good as what was produced in France, just as tasty, and had its own story to tell about its own terroir,” Mr. Kolesnikovs said.
In 2013, the Lankaaster Aged Loaf – a traditional gouda “with lovely butterscotch, pineapple and lactic notes,” according to Mr. Kolesnikovs’s website – was declared the best cheese in the world at the Global Cheese Awards in Britain. And cheeses from Quebec and Ontario have won numerous medals over the years at the American Cheese Society competitions.
Producers in Quebec have been particularly vocal about their concerns. The province has the highest concentration of small-scale producers, and they already struggle to compete with each other.
“The market is saturated,” Mr. Kolesnikovs said. “They’re deathly afraid of all this cheese – lower-priced cheese – from France and other places in Europe coming in and making it even more difficult to run their business.”
Jean Morin, who Mr. Kolesnikovs describes as “the rock star of Quebec cheese at the moment,” said the CETA changes in particular would hurt the rural villages whose economies depend on cheese production. In 2015, Mr. Morin’s Laliberté (triple-cream cheese made from whole milk, with “aromas of mushrooms with cream”) was crowned the Canadian Grand Champion title.
That cheese, as with his other varieties, is produced in the tiny town of Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, located about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. In the village of about 400 people, about 20 are employees of Mr. Morin’s business.
Also concerned are the dairy farmers. “Every percentage of market that is given away to foreign interests is milk that will not be produced in Canada,” said Isabelle Bouchard, director of communications at the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Her group anticipates the change will result in $116-million in lost revenue annually.
These days, Ms. Klahsen has been active in advocating for more education so that the new generation of Canadian cheese makers can be better equipped than she was all those years ago. “There’s just so much potential,” she said.
Mr. Morin agrees.
“We are afraid,” he said. “But we are hopeful.”Report Typo/Error