When Raymond and I travel, we like to track down foods that are particular to the region. I’m not talking so much about cassoulet in the southwest of France or ragù in Bologna (though those too) – more the humbler and simpler things unique to the smaller places we visit in Eastern Canada and New England. Like Royal Feast potato chips in Methuen, Mass., or Rochette’s baked beans in Lowell, Mass.; or Kawartha Dairy ice cream in Bobcaygeon or Minden, Ont.; or the wonderful organic and homemade offerings at the Saturday-morning farmers’ market in North Hatley, Que.
What are the local flavours in central Hastings County? Well, a big part of it is cheese. The people in those parts are very fond of cheese, specifically well-aged cheddar – the kind that makes the back of your jawbones sing when you eat it. South of Highway 7, from Madoc/Tweed down to Belleville, are lots of fine dairy farms, and so the area is dotted with old-fashioned cheese factories: the Ivanhoe factory in Ivanhoe, between Madoc and Belleville on Highway 62; the Maple Dale factory at Plainfield, between Tweed and Belleville on Highway 37; and the well-known Black Diamond operation in Belleville. (They are pretty much all owned by much larger companies now; Black Diamond, for instance, is owned by Parmalat. But I believe they still make their cheese using local farm milk.)
The factory nearest and dearest to us in Queensborough is at Eldorado, a few miles west on Highway 62. I have fond childhood memories of Dad pulling in the car at the factory store so we could buy curds and enjoy that squeakiness-in-the-mouth sensation all the way home. And guess what I discovered as I looked up information about the Eldorado cheese factory this evening: its current owners are based in Montreal, and the operation produces Golden Cheese, “the only Canadian made full line of Cholov Yisroel Kosher dairy products … Under the strict supervision of the Montreal Jewish Community Council (MK), all products are certified Mehadrin Kosher, in addition to being kosher for Passover throughout the year.” Now if that isn’t just the coolest thing. Here I live in Outremont, heart of the Hasidic community of Montreal, Passover is upon us, and the kosher cheese that people in the Jewish community here and across Canada may well be eating will come from my childhood cheese factory in tiny little Eldorado, Ont. Wow.
OK, cheese, yes. I remember many times as a child passing around plates containing squares of cheddar – extra-old orange and white, and occasionally marble, although that was kind of frowned upon because it was relatively mild – during the social (read: noshing) hour at meetings of the United Church Women or the Manse Committee or other church groups at the Manse. People took their cheese – always cheddar – very seriously in those parts.
Other local flavours, let’s see – well, closely related to cheese: Cheezies! I grew up thinking that all cheese-puff-type snack foods were called Cheezies, because that’s the brand we had in Hastings County. What I only found out recently, thanks to my return to the area and requisite snack-food detective work, is that “Cheezies” is the brand name of a version made in Belleville by the W.T. Hawkins Co. The founders came from Chicago but for some reason decided to bring their product north. They set up business originally in Tweed, but after a fire at the plant there in 1956, moved to the present location in Belleville. Cheezies are different from run-of-the-mill cheese puffs in that they’re a fair bit crunchier. And they are evilly delicious.
Also on the dairy front: Stirling butter, made at the Stirling Creamery. Stirling is a splendid, thriving little town southwest of Madoc. People there are very involved in the arts – the Stirling Festival Theatre is a going concern – but also sports; just this past weekend Stirling was named Canada’s Hockeyville for 2012. Congratulations, Stirling! Right at the heart of downtown Stirling is the creamery, where fine butter from fresh local cream has been made for decades. Saveur.com (the website of Saveur magazine) has rated Stirling unsalted butter one of the top 30 butters in the world, which is pretty amazing. You can read an excellent article about the history of the creamery – now owned by Butterball, of all things – in the Spring 2011 issue of Country Roads, an excellent magazine about Hastings County, here.
Gracious, I’ve only covered three things! There is much more. Tomorrow: Local flavours (II).