November 28, 2010

a pleasure of something honest in this culture of crisis and obssesive trends

End of November. Patches of snow everywhere. I do not know about most people, but I begin to panic, my body begins to make reserves, I check my cupboards often. There is a sadness in watching this Québec land slowly being buried with the snow, the intense maniacal cold taking over. As most I am sure, I cannot help thinking about our ancestors who decided to make this place home. In 1985, Fabienne (Suisse) and Frédéric Guitel (Normand) did exactly that. There was practically no land available in Switzerland and land in France was beyond cost unless you had abundant riches stashed away. Québec had land and reasonably priced.

They bought a farm. Pigs. 4 years of injections and the strange business surrounding it and they quickly realized it was not them, it was not what they wanted, they were not happy. Land they had, but there was suddenly the internal dilemma about what direction to take. They met some people who wanted to make a fromagerie of goat cheese and needed milk. Fantastic. 180 goats later and the project never came to fruition. They struggled. For a while they dealt with Damafro but the demand for their milk was not consistent. Delivery of fresh milk was also expensive. Then the loss of of a huge batch of fresh milk from not being able to sell it. Enter the cheese. Frédéric took a course in Joliette in 1992 for cheese making, raved about it, and Fabienne followed. Cows also followed and in 1995 the fromagerie was born.

I listen to a few customers coming in. They each have different stories, but I realize that they are saying something very similar. They don't want to be lied to, they do not want to be cheated. And this space, this fromagerie in a sense, what it felt like was a space to be able to discuss what that meant. It felt like a space to criticize society while doing something about it.

Two of their cheeses, Grand Manitou and Funambule were recipes purchased from the now non existent fromagerie La Voie Lactée, which was in Assomption, shortly after the whole listeria fiasco in Québec. There are a few such who disappear, but Fabienne and Frédéric bought these two recipes from La Voie Lactée in a sort of solidarity.

Funambule-goat cheese. nice runny insides. strong smell of goat, roasted butter, floral. taste a little acidity, butter, hazelnuts....really amazing with a 2002 Tannat wine from Uruguay (go figure the odds of that one).

Freddo-pale yellow to orange crust. smell of fresh paris mushrooms, cheddar, fresh milk, taste smoothe, butter, fatty. 60 days washed rind, semi ferme presée.

Le Sabot de Blanchette-fresh goat cheese in pyramid form, taste of hay, chives, floral, very creamy, amazing mouthfeel. Great with 2008 vin de glace Riesling from Cote d`Ardoise.

Grand Manitou-goat, cow, ewe cheese. smell of hay, goat, fresh mushrooms and nuts. Soft taste, toasted cereal, mushrooms.

Le Petit Poitou-lobster, umami, mushroom soup, wet hay. taste of mushrooms, good length, almost leaning of truffles, duxelles. type of camembert.

In 1985, when they arrived farmers were seen as, well, uneducated shit. Thirty years later a different mood has settled. There is more respect for them as artisans contrasted with the wealthy multinational farmer non farmer.

North America. Welcome to the land of endless diets, fads, endless new foods, endless identity crisis' where tradition has always been pierced, beaten, violated and killed. Talking with Fabienne I realize they are descendants of a long line of agriculturalists who have been there longer than the obsessive, demented trends America is capable of, and I am happy for it, because here are people who have something more to share than artisanal cheese, and that is the pleasure of something honest.

November 24, 2010

for those about to revolt, we salute you.

It was between making a film or becoming a terrorist" Hugo Latulippe explains in his documentary: Bacon Le Film. Although the theme is that greed begets greed and the big only get bigger there was another message, more heartening and assuring; that by creating coalitions of the smaller, something much stronger is founded than the big multinational standing alone. In short, it is also a documentary of hope.

The issue? Mega pork farms which have been popping up everywhere in Québec. With the mirage of having to compete in a global market, but in the end, as so often, making a very few individuals very wealthy whose byproduct of pollution is out of control. And again who is paying to clean up the mess of these mega mono pork farms? Us. The citizen's taxes who pay. We subsidize the profits they pocket. Old hat. This by now is standard policy in North America. But not everyone accepts this with a shrug and defeatist libertarian's approach.

Enter Roméo Bouchard. Québec's José Bové, ex-farmer, writer, militant against the UPA monopoly, founder of Sauver les Campagne and co-founder of Union Paysanne. This is someone who understands the ridiculous nature of efficiency and profit driven business. "The world cannot support infinite growth." But this is exactly the image we are presented with by most leaders, multinational CEO's and rationalists. Absurd. This documentary is about that meeting point of the absurd logic behind mega farms and monocultures, and the real family farms and citizens of the countryside. We are taken through the strange world of pigs in cages no bigger than themselves so that they do not get too much exercise (food costs money), injections, no sex, no natural expression, live castrations, tail cuttings, under water pollution, abuse, government turned mafia (read Fast Food Nation). We are taken to the frontier where the mind of man thinks that it can turn the whole of nature into a laboratory, where the farm simply becomes another meat shop with no link to life, hostile to nature...the balance heavily upset.

Another issue is that the UPA, Union des Producteurs Agricoles, without forcing farmers to sign on as a member, nonetheless forces on each a payment annually varying between 300 and 600 dollars. Even if you refuse to pay on principle they dock it off your milk production, your meat, your land. More than 5000 farmers have been legally pursued by UPA for refusing to pay on the basis of principal. Québec is the only place in the western world to still maintain this sort of monopoly. Autonomy? This issue is so deep that I have yet to meet a farmer who has had anything good to say about the UPA. Stories I have heard included some subtle tactics and threats towards certain people concerning their future and the future of their kids. Shit, if that is not a mafia....

November 20, 2010

Under the counter meat. friends of the people and well being, Mont St-Hilaire

On the summit of Mont St-Hilaire with my good friend Marie Josée we looked out over a strange landscape. There was farm land; some of it industrial, some small scale, probably not much artisanal. There was the Richelieu river swerving through it all, probably a little polluted. And then Beloeil. Not much to say, except surreal. Mid november at 15 degrees we could not be happier. Our bellies were full of fresh apple juice, goat cheese and a local bread. Before climbing the mountain we had just witnessed the short zany copulation of a billygoat and his mate. After strange tongue movements reminiscent of 80`s rock band members and a shuffle and a dance, BAM! One swift shot which took, 2 seconds. We were stunned. No pleasure there. I can see how being called a buck could perhaps be insulting. I asked what they did with the meat. They don`t advertise their meat, and keep it for those who....well, all I can say is that the trunk of my car began quickly filling up. One thing I could not help noticing was that most of the goats had their horns. Delicate, since they do fight quite a bit, and regularily impale one another. They find it a tough moral decision. Instead of burning off the horns though he is experimenting with a pretty innovative trick. A tight rubber band around the base of the horn. Blood is cut off, the horn falls. That is it. And they respect the natural cycle of their animals, no artificial lighting, no artificial nothing. How simple is that. No compromise. A lot less cheese in the winter but a little time of rest. That is that. It does not get more normal than that.

Coming down the mountain we were ready to visit the ice cider Cryo.

Although Hugo, the owner of Cryo, was not there we were nonetheless given the grand tour. She explains the two different types of ice cider: Cryo concentration which represents about 90 percent of the production which is essentially apples picked in autumn, frozen out doors and then slowly pressed for the concentrated juice. The second method is cryo extraction which is when the apple is frozen on the tree itself, picked weather and wind beaten on a crazy minus too many degrees Québec winter day and then pressed frozen. Courtland is usually the apple for this. For both of these methods the essential characteristic is that the process of freezing is completely natural. We talked about how the Chinese have understood this method and are trying to do the same but by using freezers. Enter industrialization. This led once again to the talk of AOC`s in Québec to protect products which are pure in their approach and definite in the character of the terroir. Put this way, winter looks a little different.

mi Cryo-Spartan, Mcintosh and Empire. 8.7% nice balance between sugar and acidity giving way to apple. Fresh.

Cryo cidre de glace-11% soft, spices, honey. Not too sweat leading to apricots, with subtle oxidation, buttery with a nice apple finish.

Prestige-2008 10%-apples picked in mid-january. Crazy irony that the immediate fruit on the nose is litchi with a little pineapple with toasted nuts. Excellent big taste of compoted Courtland.

The trunk full again with meat, drink, apples, blue squash....I could only be thankful for my friends and the artisans who are holding on to values which hopefully will multiply in their intensity and respect not only for the nature but for each of us.

November 7, 2010

picnic of raw milk cheese on the summit of the mini mountain St-Grégoire (a reprieve from douche bags)

Upon waking I wanted to climb a mountain. A nice steep hike to work off last nights oyster's and wine, and 5 course meal and beer....I also needed cheese for the restaurant. I looked at a map and without hesitation I knew it was going to be the Mont St-Grégoire area. I have always drove past it, always admiring its bulk among the flat farm lands.

I can see the mountain as I drive down rang Saint Édouard, a powerful presence, an unmistakable point of reference. The plan was to buy some cheese at Au Gré des Champs and then picnic on the peak of that powerful bulk. Some cattle are indoors an open barn where the chew and wait, some are outside just standing around, almost as if scheming, occasionally taking a dump. Behind them about 5 km away I can see Mont St Grégoire's lonely presence rising out of the flat land. A dog starts barking, a protetive natural warning. Daniel Gosselin sticks his head out of the door, says hi, asking if I needed anything. Just watching the cows. He understands, waves and I continue. How ingenious that the sun should burst into plants and grass, these enormous beasts should eat them, we milk them and with the magic of a little salt, cheese. A way to preserve the otherwise quickly spoiling milk (unless pasteurized). Here no. This is straight up organic raw milk. Fromage fermier. Auto-sufficient farmer's cheese, meaning that they control all levels of production. Inside, the boutique is represented a dozen or so other artisans, mostly organic, and even a dozen or so cheeses from other fromageries around Québec, a good reminder of solidarity. Also one can observe through a window into the production room where there is about 20 plastic rounds slowly dripping. I am told that this is a mix of last night and this morning's milking and will end up becoming three months from now their famous Gré des Champs cheese. One meule per cow. The farm was taken over by Daniel from his father who also operated a dairy farm, and with his wife Suzanne Dufresne decided who used to work for the commission scholaire they slowly replaced the Holsteins with the Suisse Brunes, replanted the land with many varieties of flowers, studied, learnt and pushed towards their first two cheeses, Gré des Champs and Iberville in 2000. Monnoir followed and now two fresh raw milk cheeses unheard of before. Most raw milk cheese by law has to be aged for a minimum of 60 days. Not these. With another permit they are able to produce a 5 day fresh cheese and a 15 day one. Each with incredible intensity. Au Gré de Champs work on this level is to be admired.

Along the way on chemin de la Montagne I see a little kiosk selling apples and other things. Last chance. I am greeted by a guy with a big hunting gun. Hello. I oddly felt like I was back in Lebanon for a second. He goes and gets a woman who is responsible for the kiosk. He disappears. I buy some apples and a jar of apple jelly she makes which I think will go great with the younger floral cheeses.

Not far from there is the entrence to the mini moutain. I pay the three dollars to the Non profit organization CIME who protects the place and its wildlife. I walk up the steep flank of the mountain, ok, 251 meters. This is not Everest at 8848 meters, but nonetheless this mini mountain delivers an impressive view and a solid donkey kick to the heart. Along with Mont Yamaska, Shefford, Mont Rougemont, Saint Hillaire and Saint Bruno they all represent the same event when the North American Plate moved westward 124 million years ago. I sat down on something millions of years old, looking at what was once an immense wild forest below. All this dense forest in such a short time has become the clean cut ownership lines of farm land spreading out as far as the naked eye can see. Grey rectangles, rust coloured orchards, beige rectangles, off green rectangles. The mini mountain was once named Mount Johnson after John Johnson owner of the monnoir and Seigneurie in 1795. The named changed in 1923 after Grégoire le Grand (540-604). I can only imagine why. I watch the movement of the passing clouds' shadows over the fields below and pull out the cheese, the apple jelly and the bread.

Pont Blanc. 15 days, raw milk organic. Along with the Peningouin it is the first raw milk cheese under sixty days in Canada. Pungent, very floral, creamy. Excellent with the apple jelly I bought from that little kiosk.

Gré des Champs. 3 months and up. Rotten oatmeal looking crust, smell of a damp cave, orangish tint. Soft taste of mushrooms, hazelnuts, flowers, cooked butter.

Iberville-2 month old. semi firm, light orange crust, very floral, herbal, creamy, toasted notes with a slight bite.

Le Monnoir-good hard rotten crust, damp forest floor speckled with penicilium candium. This one from a winter milk, slightly drying, not as fatty. Light tasting, hazelnuts, butter, herbal. 6 months.

I was happy to be able to appreciate all this beauty, great cheese, good health. I thought of all the farms below that I do business with, all part of this fragile fabric in the face of multinationals, yet still persevering. I wanted everyone to be here with me suddenly, including my late father, brother, grandfather, grandmother and uncle. I was grateful to my mom's efforts, my stepfather's love and patience, and somewhere the God we all refer to even if divided. I was happy, and yet knew that in about 30 minutes driving back to Montréal I would be angrily cursing humanity and stupidity again.