Weekend Warrior

Trappist Monks’ Cheese

The Cheese Stands Alone

100 years of history lies behind distinct local cheese.

On a quiet rural highway in southwest Manitoba, a lofty bell tower rises from the flat earth. The Trappist monastery’s aesthetic is both new and ancient—its shape reminiscent of European cathedrals and its clean lines a testament to modernity. Inside, monks live, pray and create cheese drawing on more than 100 years of history.

StinkyCheeseBrother Alberic is a member of Our Lady of the Prairies—Manitoba’s only Trappist monks. The Roman Catholic order originated in France in the 17th century. Wearing a baseball cap and parka over his long white robes, the 74-year-old monk, speaks in short sentences—silence is sacred to the order.

The monks’ presence in Manitoba goes back to 1890 when a parish priest wrote to officials in France requesting a Trappist order in St. Norbert. As Winnipeg’s population grew, the monks wanted more solitude and began seeking a new home. In 1978, they moved to the small town of Holland, Manitoba about 150 km west of Winnipeg where a supply of fresh water, including an underground river, made it an ideal site.

Alberic entered monastic life when he was 16, learning to make raw milk Trappist cheese in Oka, Quebec. The recipe and method date back to the 17th century when a French monk travelling in Yugoslavia discovered them. In a thick French accent, Alberic describes it as a strong cheese adding it has a potent aroma with traces of a soil scent.

The milk is bought from a neighbouring farm to the fromagerie where it is heated but not pasteurized—using unpasteurized milk is what gives the cheese its distinct flavour. A bacteria culture is then added along with rennet to thicken it into cheese curds. The curds are placed in circular moulds where they sit on a press for 24 hours. Afterwards, the cheese is taken to the cellar where it’s aged for two months to kill off bacteria while the rind changes from white to orange. A daily rinse of salt water prevents the wheels from drying out.

This traditional method is used throughout the Trappist order. As a result, the cheese is the same whether it’s produced in Manitoba, Quebec or France, a fact that excited Chef Bernard Mirlycourtois when he discovered it being made locally. “It’s something that’s very earthy in taste,” says the Michelin-starred chef, who came to Manitoba from Burgundy, France 20 years ago. He uses it in cheese soufflé at his namesake restaurant in the Exchange District and says its soft texture and rich taste makes the monks’ creation very appealing.

While this cheese makes up a large part of the monks’ diet, they also sell it to supplement their modest pension cheques. One of their goals is to be completely self-sufficient. “It’s a monastic tradition,” says Alberic. “Our life is based on work, prayers and reading.” 

The monks also maintain a garden and orchard where they grow most of their food. An on-site shop is stocked with the cheese along with other hand-made products, including chocolates and jams. Women are allowed inside the store and parts of the church, but are not permitted into other monastery buildings such as the fromagerie, a monastic tradition, Alberic says, that goes back to the 4th century.

Although common in Europe, raw milk cheese has seen controversy in North America. Unpasteurized milk can harbour harmful bacteria if not properly handled leaving some to question its safety. (Pregnant women are often advised to avoid raw milk products.) However, in Manitoba, raw milk cheese must be aged for 60 days, a process that kills off these potentially harmful organisms. Alberic says they have never had any problems with the monastery’s cheese, adding it consistently meets strict provincial guidelines and is regularly inspected.

Currently, only Alberic and one other monk is trained to make the cheese in Manitoba. They produce only 55-60 kg a week. Maintaining the size of their tiny operation ultimately benefits the quality of the cheese and reflects the monks’ idyllic lifestyle. That contentment is evident in the care the monks bestow on their product. “We’re small and we watch what we have,” says Alberic.

Trappist cheese is available at De Luca’s Specialty Foods, 950 Portage Avenue, 775-8605; Fenton’s Gourmet Foods, The Forks Market, 942-8984 and Tall Grass Prairie Bakery, 859 Westminster Avenue, 783-5097