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 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!