by Corin Hirsch
I'm a sucker for food with a story, and Le 1608 has one that stretches back three generations. In a way, that's not uncommon for a cheese made in Québec, where each comes with a passionate tale from its creator.
1608 is the year that colonists began importing cattle from Normandy to New France. The inky-brown bovines eventually became the only breed developed in North America, hearty animals that adapted to Québec's harsh climate and topography, and whose milk is rich in butter fat and protein. "Vaches Canadiennes" numbered a half-million by 1850 but fell into a long decline as other breeds (with higher yields) rose to the fore. Now, only 600 or so still exist, about 150 of them in the Charlevoix region north of Québec City.
Up in Charlevoix, it's effin' cold. What to do with craggy highlands, microsummers and months of snowdrifts? Pasture Canadienne cows when you can, and make cheese. The Labbé family figured this out four generations ago at their Laiterie Charlevoix dairy, where they've made a mélange of cheeses over the decades. Two years ago, they began using the luscious milk of the Canadienne to create a washed-rind cheese modeled on the cheeses of France's Alpine Savoie region. Aged between three and six months, Le 1608 is semi-firm but still creamy, tasting of nuts and apples, butter and tang. It's become wildly popular in Québec.
This week, the American Cheese Society is holding its massive annual conference (and competition) in Montréal, and American cheese makers -- several Vermonters among them -- are eating up both the stories and the fromage. Jean Labbé, the grandson of Laiterie Charlevoix's founders, was there when we came, sharing the story of his cheese.
"Why Canadienne cows?" he asked us via a PowerPoint slide. In heavily accented English, he explained the reason: "A little, perhaps much, of emotional matters." The cheese he and his brothers make helps preserve and encapsulate Charlevoix's heritage, maybe even enticing the next generation to stay rather than head to the city. It also helps coax the Canadienne herd back from the brink of disappearance. Most importantly, it's delicious.
I once spent a week walking in the Alps, sharing paths with grazing cows and their clanging bells and sampling the cheeses made daily at each of the remote huts along the way. A farmer told me then that the flavors varied from place to place because of the altitude at which each farmer's cows grazed. This seems to be the essence of 1608, too: a rich expression of a micro-terroir. Whether you slice it and wash it down with a glass of Hefeweizen or grill it in a ham sandwich, you can ponder the people, and the cows, behind it. Or just swoon.
You can find 1608 at some of the cheese markets around Montréal — notably the shop at Atwater market— or, better yet, you can hit up the ACS' Festival of Cheese this Saturday night. An $85 ticket buys access to 1400 competing cheeses from across the continent (including Mexico), as well as beer and wine from Québecois producers. I can't make it, but I'm planning to get up to Charlevoix as soon as I can.
Corin Hirsch compulsively seeks out (and tries to recreate) tasty dishes and drinks that reflect the season. Each week, Grazing highlights some of those adventures.