After almost 50 years of living in North America, I see from this distance, the decline of the influence of French gastronomy in France. After the Second World War, the French wanted to imitate the Americans and encourage intensive agricultural production in defiance of the cultural values of our agricultural heritage. Americans generally react much faster than we Europeans do. Today, North-Americans discover that France and Switzerland have a wealth in artisanal know-how that has sadly been in decline, world-wide. Let me explain: there are young Americans and Canadians who go to France or Switzerland to learn French and learn how to produce cheese or wine or cider using traditional, artisanal methods. They return home and make cheese of good quality in North America. Certainly, it is not French or Swiss cheese, but it is artisanal cheese, which is made taking into account, soil conditions, the regional climate and quality of milk, often from cattle, goat and sheep breeds imported from Europe.
In Canada, people are slower to react, except in Quebec. In my opinion, Quebeckers are more open to exploring various methods in agriculture than English Canadians. Many farms in Quebec are turning to organic production. The Artisanal cheeses or farmers’ cheeses as they call them, are produced in a small scale cheese factories on the farm or within close proximity to the farm. Milk, in general, from the same herd, grass fed in summer and hay fed in winter. One thing that is special about this cheese is that they buy their imported livestock breeds from France or Switzerland. These breeds have adapted well to this continent; they produce a little less milk (than say, Holsteins), but a milk richer in fat and protein.
Thankfully, there is the farm-to-fork movement and there are numerous artisanal cheese producers across North America, such as Best Baa in Ontario and la station de Compton in Quebec, to name but two (there are many more!) who are answering the call to produce the very best and highest quality fare. Consider the now, well-established Cow Girl Creamery in California. Consider Birchrun Hills Farm in Pennsylvania. Consider numerous dairies and cheese producers in Quebec who are making fabulous artisanal cheeses: la fromagerie nouvelle France, la formagerie du Presbytère, and the group of artisanal cheese producers represented by Amour et Tradition.
Recently, I went on a field-trip to visit Elisabeth Bzikot of Best Baa Dairy in Fergus, Ontario. Best Baa, a family-run business, produces dairy products from ewe’s milk from Ontario Amish farmers. The sheep are pastured and largely grass-fed (their feed rotates through grass, hay and some grain). Best Baa sells its products across the GTA and Southern Ontario, including Ewe’s milk, yogurt, ice cream and artisanal cheeses. There is one product in particular I was happy to find on their product list: Quark!
Given some studies in the past decade demonstrating that grass-fed beef was found to be higher in both Omega-3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef (studies, such as this one), grass-fed meat and dairy have become increasingly sought-after by the health-conscious. When I ask Elisabeth about this, she says that they were pasturing their livestock for animal welfare reasons, long before the scientific evidence demonstrated that doing so also makes a healthier product. When Elisabeth first came to Canada, she and her family settled in Manitoba and they farmed a breed of sheep called Columbia (or sometimes called “Western”). When they came to Ontario in 1998, they brought their sheep and some wild boar from Manitoba. Later, they started breeding British Milk Sheep and this breed did well on their farm. They started the Ewenity Dairy with neighboring sheep farmers and they sought out customers for their product: ewe’s milk. As it happened they found a cheese producer in Manitoba interested in purchasing their milk, but that producer had disappeared by the time the milk was produced. Thus they set out to learn how to make cheese of their ewe’s milk.
Elisabeth went to France for a cheese course and had spent time with other sheep breeders learning about breeding and milking. Both she and her son Peter also took a cheese-making course offered at the University of Guelph. Little by little the other sheep dairy farmers were leaving farming, until finally the only members left in the Ewenity Cooperative were Elisabeth, her husband Eric, son Peter and daughter-in-law, Nicole. By this time, they were focused on both dairy production and cheese-making. They started getting to know the Amish farmers and working with those that wanted to raise British Milk Sheep to produce milk. By 2009, they were purchasing all their milk from Amish farmers who were raising the same breed that had done so well on the Bzikot family farm, and concentrating their efforts on producing dairy products and selling them. Fast forward to today, when you can enjoy from their delicious line of artisanal cheeses:
As with most family businesses, different members of the family work together on different aspects of the business. Most of the machinery work and liaison with the Amish dairy farmers is done by Eric Bzikot. Delivery and yogurt-making is largely undertaken by Peter Bzikot. Business administration is done by Nicole Bzikot and much of the cheese making is done by Elisabeth.
And so what was once the norm in France, where I grew up, is on the one hand in decline, but on the other hand, seems to be making a come back, here in North America. The Farm-to-Fork movement and others that seek to foster small-scale food production for the sake of preserving the full-flavour and the nutritional benefits that are lost in large-scale farming production methods, are starting to nurture this kind of farming and production again. For those of us who care what we put in our bodies (and those who care about the welfare of the animals as they feed us), it is producers like these that let us see that we can make better choices and enjoy more flavorful and delicious food in the process. So if you have not yet checked out the sheep dairy products of Best Baa, I recommend that you do. I myself, have become a loyal customer!