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Le 1608, Laiterie Charlevoix, 79.99/kg.

The second cheese from Sunday’s binge (OMG – is it Thursday already???) is “Le 1608”.  This is a new cheese from an old dairy, with a name that celebrates an even older heritage of a very old breed – The Canadienne.

Picture ships carrying settlers across the Atlantic from Ancien France to Nouvelle France in the early 17th century.  And on those ships, picture cattle accustomed to the cozy conditions of the Normandy countryside about to be dropped into harsh Quebec winters.  Those original animals, transported between 1608-1610, were the foundation for the only breed of dairy cattle developed in North America, the Canadienne.  Selective breeding over generations produced an animal well adjusted to the climate and environment of southern Quebec.  It also produced an animal that yields milk high in butterfat and protein – great for cheese-making.  Just one small problem – the Canadienne doesn’t produce a lot of this white gold, so over the years it slowly lost ground to higher yielding breeds like the Holstein.  While there were around 500,000 Canadienne in 1900, numbers dropped through the 20th century as dairy farming became increasingly industrialized. The breed was given a heritage designation by the Government of Quebec in 1999 and their numbers are slowly climbing back. Currently there are around 500 head, about half of them in Quebec’s Charlevoix region in the St. Lawrence uplands, not far from the landing site of their ancestors.

Lucky for cheese-lovers, these beasts are within milk-trucking distance of the Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie-St-Paul. Founded in 1948 by Stanislas Labbé and Elmina Fortin, the Laiterie Charlevoix has been almost exclusively devoted to Cheddar production for most of its existence.  But the new generation of the Labbé family – brothers Jean, Paul, Bruno and Dominique – saw an opportunity in the resurgence of the Canadienne and the cheese-making potential of its milk.  In 2007, they set themselves the task of developing a cheese that could be released in 2008, during the Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France celebrating the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Quebec. In a nod to history, the cheese is made purely from the milk of the Canadienne.  This effort also springs from the establishment of a new association – L’ Association de développement de la race Canadienne dans Charlevoix – devoted to expanding the presence of the Canadienne in Charlevoix, and through a collective management model that seeks to maintain viable, small scale dairy farms in the region, by linking farmers directly to processors like the Labbés.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Labbe’s and the farmers working to restore the Canadienne.  They have enriched our lives by bringing us a wonderful cheese.

Le 1608 is an easy cheese to approach.  It’s semi-soft, cooked, pressed and aged from 90 to 180 days, with a lovely pale orange rind and a pale yellow paste (from the carotenes in the butterfat).  The aroma is powerful with persistent notes of garlic and the barnyard – bordering on, but not quite, ‘stinky’.  The paste has supple texture with a lovely velvety mouthfeel and a complex flavour that includes hints of apple and cashew nuts.  It melts well and is an easy substitute for a Raclette.  Buy this. And keep your eyes open for Laiterie Charlevoix’s other winner, L’Hercule de Charlevoix.