Best local cheese of all?

Cheese being made at the factory in – well, I won't tell you where; you have to read to the end of the post. But I am reliably informed it is the best cheddar around. (Photo courtesy of the mystery cheese co-operative to which I am in the process of giving a great big plug)

Cheese being made at the factory in – well, I won’t tell you where; you have to read to the end of the post. But I am reliably informed it is the best cheddar around. (Photo courtesy of the mystery cheese co-operative – okay, website here – to which I am in the process of giving a great big plug.)

You may have heard about the big fire the other day that destroyed a landmark Eastern Ontario cheese factory, the St-Albert factory southeast of Ottawa. (Happily, the co-op’s board of directors has vowed to rebuild it.) I have to admit that St-Albert is not one of the Ontario cheddars that I am familiar with. But the news of the devastating fire got me thinking about the great old Ontario tradition of cheese factories that were owned and operated by farmers’ co-operatives, and how they are a dwindling breed, and what fantastic cheese they made and, in the case of those left standing, still make.

And it also made me think about what I am reliably informed is possibly the best cheese of all, at least in the little corner of the world (central Hastings County) where the Manse is located.

When I was growing up at the Manse in the 1960s and early 1970s, the cheese we enjoyed came from the nearby Eldorado Cheese Factory. I’ve written about that operation here (among other posts), and I have to tell you that good old Eldorado cheese was amazing. (Sadly, the factory operation is now a shell of its former self; you can read about that here, in a post from a Tweed-area blogger who rightly encourages us all to “Save our cheese factories.”) Other not-too-far-away cheese factories with long histories that are still going strong today are Ivanhoe and Maple Dale.

Before my day, there was even a Queensborough cheese factory, just east of our little village; I have seen a record-book of deliveries of milk to it from local farmers, and recognize many of the names. At least one of those long-ago milk suppliers is still farming! But the factory has been gone for many, many years. (Once I get my act together [translation: find some spare time] and start pulling my weight with the little group working on the work-in-progress queensborough.ca website, you’ll be able to read more about that old cheese factory – and many other things in Queensborough’s history.)

Anyway, let’s talk about a cheese worth celebrating: one that is as strong and good as old-fashioned Ontario cheddar is supposed to be, and that is made at an old-fashioned local farmers’ co-operative. I have it on very good authority (a longtime Hastings County dairy farmer) that it is the best cheese around.

It is: Empire Cheese, from just outside the town of Campbellford, in eastern Northumberland County – right next door to central Hastings County. You can find out all about it at Empire’s website; I learned, for instance, that it has been around since 1876. (The operation, that is. Not the cheese. That would be a little too old, even for extra-old cheddar.) And, very impressively, that one of its cheeses took first place at the 2012 Royal Winter Fair! (Not to mention many other awards that Empire cheeses have received at the Royal and the Quinte Exhibition in Belleville over the years; read about them here.)

I bet you wish you were coming for cheese and crackers to my place tonight – because look what 's being served!

I bet you wish you were coming for cheese and crackers to my place tonight – because look what ‘s being served!

I was familiar with Empire Cheese from the days when my family lived in Campbellford (after our Queensborough years), but that was long enough ago that factories making great cheddar were still pretty common. We took it for granted. Can’t do that anymore.

I haven’t tasted Empire Cheese for a long, long time. But I am extremely happy to report that my fridge contains an as-yet unopened stick of Empire’s “4-Year Supreme.” Best local cheddar!

12 thoughts on “Best local cheese of all?

  1. I am not going to annoy you by mentioning the 15 degree weather , nor be a bore and mention the sound of the surf this morning as I sit here with my morning coffee. That would be cruel and I am not a cruel person. You mention cheese factories and history. Gayle has a very good collection of cheese factory histories done by library students many years ago if they would be of any help. Weird note of correction; the factory known as the “Madoc Factory” was actually west of Queensborough where a house now stands, formerly owned by the late Ken Ramsay. Anyway there were some much more romantic names for cheese factories; Oak Leaf, Brook Valley, Cold Spring, Spring Hill, Alexandria, Spring Creek and Champion. I, the ancient sage, can tell you where every one of those were in Madoc Township. Enjoy the wonderful Empire cheese. as my friend Ross Moorcroft puts it, “the only old cheese like Eldorado Gold usd to be.”

    • Hello, Grant! Leaving aside my intense jealousy at you folks being down by the ocean in a warm clime while we are putting up with monster snowstorms and very cold temperatures … oh, where was I? Right – cheese factories! I think I knew (but had forgotten) that there was a cheese factory where the Ramsay house is, but the one I was thinking of was one at Moore’s Corner. In Jean Holmes’s book Times to Remember in Elzevir Township she writes about it – first called the Elzevir Cheese Factory Company, later the Queensborough Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Company – saying it opened in 1890 and operated until 1950. Now, I thought that Moore’s Corner was just past where Jean and her husband, Leslie, lived, east of the village, but perhaps I’ve got that mixed up. Could there have been two cheese factories so close together?

    • As I travelled the planet, the one thing I missed the MOST and I do mean, the MOST, was CHEESE CURDS!!!!!! It seems you cannot find these elusive little rubbery, mouth-watering, salty delights anywhere but Ontario, Canada. You either hate ’em or luv ’em! There’s NO in between! I am TOTALLY addicted and will be an incurable “curdy” for the rest of my days. If I was ever on death row and they asked me what my final meal request was, I would scream out, with no hesitation, one giant bag of curds and two big bottles of chilled Pepsi Cola! I will never forget me and my twin brother walking or hitch-hiking from Madoc to the Ivanhoe Cheese Factory in the 1960’s to shell out 50 cents for a greasy little box of curds. (about 4 dollars a bag now! Hell! I’d pay 40!) This was our “marijuana” back then. I even have dreams about curd today! I’m not kidding! After I left Madoc, the yearning hit some nightmarish all-time highs. Check this out…….on two occasions, from long-distance locales, very long distance, I actually paid Fedex a small fortune to jet me a couple of bags of curd! This is the one powerful tool that my siblings back home constantly use on me to tempt me into returning to Ontario. Evil little bunnies they be! They certainly know my Achilles heel! I am now working overseas in China and would, without hesitation, give up my first-born, if indeed I had a first born, for one bulging bag of fresh curds!! If anyone in Ontario can help me out, money is NO object, I assure you! Thank you and….MAY THE CURDS BE WITH YOU!!!!! (but I’d much rather have them with me!)

      • Cheese curds really are a very special delicacy of our area, aren’t they, Joey? I’ve noticed that outsiders sometimes have trouble getting their heads wrapped around that wacky squeaky texture. But oh man, like you say, are they ever good! I feel very fortunate to live in a place (unlike, say, Beijing) where I can easily get my hands on them anytime I want. I think your siblings are on to something by trying to lure you home with the thought of a ready supply of curds…

  2. I concur – Empire is the best (but then again, I was born in Campbelford)…you can buy it in Tweed at ‘The Old Cheese Factory’ (ironic?) if you can’t make it to Campbellford….

    • That is good to know! We stop in at Tweed’s Old Cheese Factory often to pick up Hidden Goldmine baked goods and frozen prepared foods (for when we arrive at the Manse late at night after a drive from Montreal, starving) and also to browse their gift and kitchen items. It is a great store. Now that I know that Empire Cheese is sold there, one more reason to visit!

  3. Lovely, well-deserved praise. And when you get to Prince Edward County…Black River Cheese. In my childhood it was called Black Creek (Crick to the farmers), run as a farmers’ cooperative. It also rose from the ashes after a fire in the, maybe, ’80’s. My Striker relatives (all farmers) were shareholders, themselves cheese-makers near Milford since the turn of the c.19. If Empire doesn’t have an aged maple cheddar, be sure to pick up BR’s! Irresistible, even to a low-fat obsessive like me.

    • Maple cheddar is not something I had heard of before, Lindi; thank you for the tip. I’m glad to know that old-fashioned cheese-making is being carried on in The County. And goodness me – thank you for reminding me of the pronunciation of “creek” as “crick.” I think there might be a blog post in there somewhere…

  4. LOVE Empire. We always stop on the way in, and the way out, of Campbellford when visiting Tim’s folks. We’re hoarding our last block of 3 year old cheddar from our visit over Christmas. Their curd is To. Die. For. 🙂

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