A Prairie Gem – Trappist Cheese

I guess when you are cloistered away with nothing to do but chant, feed the pet mouse and peruse a book written totally in Latin, your mind probably turns to many things. What to do with all the access milk would be one thing. What to eat given we are vegetarians. It is no wonder then that monks ended up being such good cheese makers. You need a lot of room, a lot of milk and a lot of patience. And a little joy and inspiration doesn’t hurt either. It is no wonder monasteries have been at the centre of a lot of the world’s cheesemaking.
The Cistercian monks of France invented Port Salut and when they went west to Quebec in Canada in 1815, they took the recipe with them. Today, Oka cheese produced until recently by those monks is perhaps Canada’s most widely-known brand.
Manitoba, on the other hand is only know becoming well known for its cheese. Which is odd given the number of dairy cattle scattered about the province. So it comes as only a small surprise to find an excellent locally-produced cheese that is both available at the source and around the city. What’s more it isn’t some new upstart with a lot of gleaming stainless steel vats and a plant in an industrial estate. Trappist Cheese has been produced in much the same fashion for more than 100 years.
Initially produced at the St. Norbert Trappist Monastery just south of Winnipeg, and now at their new home in the town of Holland, the cheese is, in my opinion, an improved version of Oka.
Five Cistercian monks of the Trappist Order from the Abbey of Bellefontaine, France, established the monastery in l892 in what was pristine countryside on the La Salle River, south of what is now Winnipeg. This self-sufficient monastery included milking barns, stables, a cheese house, apiary, sawmill, and cannery. At its height, more than 50 monks called the St. Norbert monastery home.
By 1978, urban sprawl was affecting the quiet life the monks sought, and they pulled up stakes for the town of Holland, way out in the boonies south of Brandon where they continued with their cheese making ventures. The main monastery building was burned down in the mid 1980s, although some buildings remain as an arts centre and the ruins still host a summer theatre festival Shakespeare in the Ruins.
Today, about 20 monks carry on the tradition of cheese making.
Trappist Cheese is very similar to Oka cheese produced in Quebec. That cheese is, in turn similar to Port Salut from north western France.
Trappist is a raw cow’s milk cheese, with a semi-soft, buttery texture. It has a strong aroma and a creamy, nutty taste, although taste and aroma don’t really match. Trappist is slightly stronger and more complex than its eastern cousin.
The cheese is produced in 12-inch round wheels. It is pressed into a mould and surface ripened for 60 days. The cheese is then placed on wood slats, periodically turned and washed in a brine solution. The final rind colour is a pale straw yellow.
The cheese is now a staple at a number of Winnipeg restaurants and is a great alternative to Okas and Port Saluts. I am not sure of its availability outside the province but certainly give it a go.
With respect to wine….I would say go with something Canadian….a Niagara Red for example, Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir is a good choice.

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