Our Proud Producers: Oka Cheese

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Since 1893, some of the best cheese in the world has been made at The Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac at Deux –Montagnes Quebec, a monastery that at its peak was home to over two-hundred monks. In 1880, the Trappists were expelled from France and offered some land on the Lake of Two Mountains, in Oka, Quebec, by another Order, the Sulpicians. The monks established the Monastery there and, to help sustain it, formed The Oka Agricultural Institute in collaboration with the University of Montreal.

Trappist monks, although they do live a life of quiet contemplation and prayer, removed by-and-large from the outside world, have always been encouraged to support their monasteries by producing goods available to the general public.

Monks from of other countries like Belgium and Holland are famous for producing  beer, and in fact the beer from the Westvleteren Brewery run by the Trappist Monks make what is in some circles regarded as the best beer in the world.

And so it was that, in 1893, when the monks of the Oka abbey found themselves in financial trouble, they found a solution; cheese. As it turns out, one of the monks, Frère Alphonse Juin was from the Port-du-Salut Abbey in Entrammes, where the famous Port-du-Salut cheese was developed. And he had the secret recipe! 

 

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“In the stone caves below the Abbey, Frère Juin set up a simple workshop. Milk from local cows was mixed with a well-guarded list of ingredients in big, iron pots. Without a thermometer to work with, the monk would occasionally dip his finger into the mix and, when it was heated just right, motion to his apprentice to remove the pot from the fire.

The cheese was then poured into molds, washed with a secret solution, and left to ripen on special cypress planks imported from South Carolina.

Thanks to the unique natural resources of the area and Frère Juin’s ability to distribute the Abbey’s wares, OKA cheese became an astounding success—winning first prize at the Montreal Exhibition in 1893 and again at the Quebec Exhibition the following year”-pleasureandcheeses.ca

 

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Though the monks supported themselves by producing cheese for the next seventy-five years, in 1981 they sold the recipe to Agropur, the giant dairy co-op based in Longueil Quebec, who still make the cheese to Frère Juin’s exacting and secret standards, in the same facility, and it is ripened in the same ripening rooms in the Abbey.

But of course, times change and by the early 21st Century  only 28 monks remained in the Abbey, and half of those were over seventy, so in 2006 the Abbey was sold to a non-profit group, Oka Abbey Corp. planning to turn the 150 year old Abbey and the 270 hectares of land into a tourist and education centre. With the proceeds from the sale of the original Abbey the remaining monks re-located to swanky new digs.

They’re doing  just fine, thank you, and still producing and selling their famous cheese too, which you can buy in the shop at their monastery.

Now if you haven’t tried this amazing cheese, you really should. Its storied past is a fascinating part of Canadian history and it has been winning awards and garnering international attention for over one hundred and twenty years. This distinctive surface-ripened semi-firm cheese with its orange rind is slightly pungent, addictive, buttery and nutty, and perfect with Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, and, hooray, most beers!

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