How the sole cheese producer in Newfoundland and Labrador gathers his curds and whey
IT ALL BEGINS WITH BACTERIA. Any cheesemaker will tell you their pride and joy is a living thing; a swirling pool of microbes that turns into the cheddar on your sandwich or the yogurt in your parfait.
After years of tipping two-litre milk cartons into an eightlitre pot on the stove of his house and later a commercial kitchen, Adam Blanchard wanted those microbes to make better-tasting cheese. He wanted raw milk, which contains more delicious bacteria than pasteurized carton milk, so he ventured to collect the white gold directly from a Newfoundland farm for his company, Five Brothers Artisan Cheese.
That same milk found itself all over the floor of his production facility on a fateful December 4th morning in 2016. “We were all so excited for our first delivery. The three of us went to the other side (of the production facility) to the milkman who was doing the delivery. We get it hooked up and start pumping,” recounts Blanchard while donning his white coat and hair net during a tour of their site. “I asked one of the employees to go to the other side to get something, and she comes running back out screaming ‘We didn’t close the valve!’ There was 2,500 litres of milk on the floor on the first day.”
Let’s just say becoming the sole cheesemaker in the province has been a learning experience. Blanchard is not only the sole artisanal cheesemaker in Newfoundland; he is the only secondary dairy processor. No other dairy product—ice cream, yogurt, butter—is produced in the province… but not for lack of milk. The dairy industry in Newfoundland and Labrador is small but mighty: there are just 29 dairy farmers milking around 6,000 cows but it’s the largest category of agricultural products with almost 50 million litres of milk pumped every year.
Newfoundland is in fact a net exporter of milk for secondary processing. Most raw milk in the province is pasteurized and processed into fluid milk (the stuff you pour into your breakfast cereal) by Scotsburn or Central Dairies (both under the Quebec-based Agropur Cooperative umbrella), but almost 14 per cent (14 million litres) is shipped off the island annually for secondary processing. Like most exports, getting raw milk off the island isn’t easy. In 2015, CBC reported delays with the Port-aux-Basques ferry which caused a St. David’s farmer to toss 100,000 litres of milk, costing him well over $100,000.
Betting the farm(er’s milk)
Five Brothers, the only company in the province that receives raw milk direct from a farm, isn’t a huge operation. Tucked behind the Bidgood’s Plaza retail and commercial centre in Goulds, a 15-minute drive from downtown St. John’s, there’s no sign to distinguish the place. The 2,200-square-foot facility was an empty shell when they took over (it was used for storage for the Santa Claus parade) but now boasts 2.5 employees who do the cheesemaking and packaging alongside Blanchard and his fiancé Julia Bannister, a George Brown-trained Fromager. The two met when Bannister, on a trip home to visit her mother in Port Rexton, decided to call on the only cheesemaker in the province. It was love at first bite. Twice a week, Five Brothers Cheese gets a 2,500-litre fill-up in their 4,000-litre tank from one of the surrounding dairy farms via the Dairy Farmers of Newfoundland and Labrador (DFNL). Blanchard typically doesn’t get to choose where it comes from (it’s up to the discretion of DFNL), but prefers the product of Pondview Farms Ltd.
A slew of green and white outbuildings make up Pondview Farms, which sits across the street from a small pond in the Goulds, a five-minute drive from where Blanchard cuts the cheese. Pondview has been in the Williams family since the turn of the 20th century, but it was Crosbie Williams’ father (Eric Williams) who transformed the farm from all-purpose to dairy in the 1960s. Now Crosbie owns and operates the 250-cow dairy farm with 185 cows for milking.
“It’s a work intensive industry. If you don’t love it, you’ll never survive at it,” says Williams. His 13-hour day starts every morning at 5 a.m. when he milks the cows for the first time, followed by animal husbandry duties and fieldwork. The cows are milked again around 4 p.m. The DFNL truck pulls up at 10am every other day to transport milk from the farm for processing at Central Dairies on Brookfield Road. “That’s where our milk has been going since 1970,” says Williams. A few times a week it makes its way down the road to the Five Brothers production facility.
“I went from being the only artisanal cheese company to the only cheese company in Newfoundland to the only secondary dairy processor in Newfoundland,” explains Blanchard.
The province’s history of secondary dairy production churns with layoffs and closures. Newfoundland Margarine Company, formerly Newfoundland Butter Company, operated from 1925 until 2003 when Unilever (Lever Brothers bought the plant in 1937) centralized production to Toronto. Spyglass butter, handmade in Ship Cove, N.L., was a local favorite for over 25 years but was discontinued after being sold to Central Dairies. Wholesome Dairies, on the West Coast of the island, tried their hand at yogurt in the early 2000s only to have a fire just one year into operations and have been embroiled in a lawsuit with ACOA ever since. Their two buildings were put up for sale in 2017. Central Dairies launched a line of cheeses in 2011, but momentum quickly faded (Williams ascribes it to their choice of cheddar, which was being made by a parent-competitor). When Saputo Inc. purchased Scotsburn and shut down their ice cream plant in St. John’s in 2016, it eliminated the final secondary production facility in the province.
It took years of small-batch trial and error for Blanchard to realize that how milk is processed (or not) can make or break the cheese string. “When we got out here, we were under the assumption we were going to receive milk that was pasteurized but not homogenized. That ended up not happening. I couldn’t get the cheese to cut properly, to melt properly, to squeak the way it should.”
“Imagine asking a winemaker to go into Sobeys and get their grapes. That would never happen,” Blanchard recalls. “The (raw) milk, it’s so beautiful,” Blanchard raved during a tour of his facility, “See that fat there floating on top? It’s just as beautiful. That wasn’t there when it was homogenized.”
Getting milk direct from the farm was a turning point for the business, but it didn’t come without hardship. “We had to upgrade the electrical, we had to put in hot water boosters from Houston, we had to get the milk tank, get modifications done to the vat, so we had to have people come in from Quebec to do that,” says Blanchard about the renovations needed for inhouse processing.
They made their famous cheese curds, branded as Bergy Bits, on the day after they cleaned up all the milk Blanchard didn’t have time to cry over in 2016. “I went in and tasted the curd and almost fell over with the difference. The squeak was like sneakers on the gym floor,” he recalls.
It takes about two days to make a batch of Bergy Bits. The raw milk in the vat is heated to 63 degrees then cooled down, before the cultures they acquire from Quebec are added (remember those beloved microbes?). Rennet enzymes coagulate the milk into curd which is then stirred and heated at the same time. The whey is drained off the curd and the cheddaring process begins: It’s cut into blocks, flipped, then cut with a machine like a french fry cutter. Some restaurants want big Bergy Bits which are single milled, others want smaller double-milled cuts.
The old ball and distribution chain
Blanchard does all his own packaging. Larger bags of the cheese curds are pressed in the sealer before going to places like sports and entertainment venue Mile One Centre; others are packaged in smaller bags for sale in grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
While distributor Sysco keeps a number of restaurants supplied with Five Brothers’ product, the bulk of the company’s distribution is done either by inhouse staff or via ‘cheese mules’ (also known as any of their Facebook friends) who will bring their products the four-hour ride to Grand-Falls Windsor for the Saturday farmers’ market. Their unconventional methods have had impressive success: Five Brothers Cheese is sold across the province.
Red cheddar day
When it came to selling the cheese, the learning curve wasn’t just for Five Brothers. There are still customers who ask the same questions: “Why is your cheddar not orange? What are cheese curds?” The public wasn’t used to artisanal cheese, notes Blanchard. “We want to supply the majority of Newfoundlanders, so there’s no point in starting out on the scale we are, making a funky, crazy, knock-it-in-your-face blue cheese. Why? Because that will only go to 10 per cent (of the population). We want something that is going to 90 per cent of people.”
The new St. John’s Farmers’ Market opened in July of this year and Blanchard thinks this will be a game changer in terms of public awareness and market share.
Room for more than one big cheese
How do Blanchard and Bannister feel about being the big cheese? As advocates for food self-sufficiency and sustainability (Newfoundland only produces 10 per cent of the food it needs), they want more producers here in the province. Blanchard often talks about the importance of agriculture and food security at schools and actively promotes Little Green Thumbs (a program facilitating kids growing their own food in the classroom).
“We need to support the dairy farmers,” says Blanchard. “There’s a lot of them in the province and they are good, hardworking people. … When you buy cheese from us, you’re supporting the dairy farmers of Newfoundland. The money is staying right here in the community.”
For his part, Crosbie Williams says the quality of the product is another reason to invest in local food production. “The milk quality in our province is second to none. We’ve got great quality milk and I’m proud to say that,” says Williams. “I would like to say we are getting a real foothold as to what we are going to do for an industrial plant here in the province to utilize all our milk here on the island. That’s been the goal for the milk marketing board here in our province and we’ve made huge steps in that direction.”
There are murmurs of a more formalized cheese production infrastructure in the future, but for now the cheese man stands alone.