Monday, November 2, 2009

Why is Oka the only Canadian cheese you can find in New York?

Canadian cheese doesn’t carry the same connotations as American Cheese – all Kraft Singles and curds in a can – so why don’t we see more of it around the world… As usual my response is: Cheese Politics!

“Quebec cheese is a hundred years ahead of us,” Cole Snell told me when talking about all the Quebecois cheeses offered at his store in Toronto. As proven recently in the 2009 World Cheese Awards, where a Canuck cheese took the top prize, Quebecois cheese is ready for the world stage. Still it is impossible to get the winning Le Cendrillon in the US or even cheeses that are more familiar in Canada like Le Baluchon or its mature cousin Reserve La Perade, or Fellowship or Grey Owl, or even the cryopacked-but-amazing Cows Cheddar.

Quebecois politics may have something to do with why good Canadian cheese can’t be sold to foreign markets. Also, there is the Canadian federal system that protects small local producers, but creates huge obstacles for small dairies to obtain federal permits to sell across provinces. This risks only helping big agri-business and food conglomerates with the resources to lobby parliament.

The transfer of knowledge from Quebecois cheesemakers to other farmers in the rest of Canada has been slow. A persistent perception that English-speaking Canadians only eat cheddar has hindered joint ventures that would train cheesemakers in British Columbia, Ontario or PEI. So most of the cheeses produced in the English-speaking provinces have developed by people who have gone “back to the farm,” much like in the US.

The US still limits imports of Canadian cheddar to protect American producers (mainly conglomerates producing block commercial cheddar). Many of the regulations in place are left-over from policies adopted by the government of the thirteen American colonies against the royalist Canadians who sided with England during the war for independence. Other regulations involve the inconsistent 60-day rule applying to raw milk cheeses, that bans the entrance of much amazing unpasteurized cheese from Canada.

If this weren’t enough, the Canadian government has been slow at supporting its own producers (artisanal, but also some farmstead) to get them off the ground and move into export. I know we are not meant to have some food products outside of our regions, following slow food principles, but when you think about it, Toronto is closer to New York, Quebec closer to Boston and Vancouver closer to Seattle, than many points within the States. “Think local, think Canadian” was my motto when I was beginning to develop a market for Canadian cheeses in New York.

While that project is on hold, now I just hope someone starts bringing these amazing cheeses from north of the border. Intermittently, Canadian cheeses can be found at Artisanal in New York. Their affineur Denis Cottin is from Quebec and manages to bring some interesting wheels. But if you have the chance to travel north, make sure to try one of the amazing Canadian cheeses made with raw milk.

BTW – if you are into the slow movement, Mr. Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered will be giving a talk at Murray’s cheese on Friday at 6:30 PM. For info contact: Taylor Cocalis at

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