Is the best dairy in Ontario illegal?

So says Toronto Life magazine. See excerpt below from this story:

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On the federal blacklist (origins disguised to protect the guilty): 1. A semi-soft cheese with a washed rind 2. A blue cheese from Quebec 3. Michael Schmidt's raw milk 4. Goat's milk cheese aged less than 60 days 5. A pecorino-style cheese made by local chef Marc Thuet 6. A soft sheep's milk cheese

“At the back of any good cheese shop, there’s a hidden stash: a few unmarked rinds stacked in the walk-in refrigerator or piled in a bin behind the cash register. You might find a cylinder of exquisitely runny blue-streaked Dragon’s Breath sealed in black wax; or maybe a sharp sheep’s milk cheese lovingly aged by a local chef for two years; or a washed rind from Quebec that tastes delicately of fruit and herbs. These are some of the best Canadian cheeses. They are also illegal.

Experts estimate that 25 per cent of domestic rinds in Toronto are contraband. High-end, mid-range, even neighbourhood restaurants keep something illicit in their kitchens to reward regulars. It might be homemade or it might be smuggled. One chef I know gets Nova Scotia curds mailed directly to his house, where there’s less chance of a visit from a food inspector. Like most black markets, this one is burgeoning due to over-regulation: our backward dairy laws often rubber-stamp the bland, the banal and the mass-produced. The smaller the dairy the more interesting and unique its cheese, and the less likely it is to have federal accreditation. Our local industry lags decades behind Quebec’s, but the lion’s share of Quebec’s artisanal cheeses can’t legally cross provincial borders, tantamount to banning the best stuff in Canada.

Cole Snell, the owner of Provincial Fine Foods, a distribution company that sources Canadian wheels, was nabbed last year for distributing Dragon’s Breath, which is perfectly legal in Nova Scotia where it’s produced but forbidden outside the province. Last year, Snell got off with a warning after he made nice with the inspector and offered to round up and dispose of all the offending cheeses. But if he breaks the dairy laws again, he could face a fine of up to $250,000 and two years’ imprisonment. 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is so concerned with following arcane rules that it is more likely to enforce regulations on a farmstead wheel trucked in from Quebec than on one imported from France, even though French cheese making standards are often much less stringent than ours. In fact, the CFIA even allows importers to bring in unpasteurized or raw milk cheeses—such as sweet, goaty Selles-Sur-Cher and intensely nutty Saint-Marcellin—which have been aged less than 60 days. Both would be deemed a major Health Canada infraction if they were produced domestically.

Good cheese, good butter—they both start with good milk. Though the nuances are subtle, cheeses do have a season: you can taste more grass, more sweetness in a cheese made with August milk, when the cattle have been grazing on lush, flowered meadows. Some people actually seek out certain numbers on their wheels of parmigiano-reggiano—numbers that identify not only the herd but also the season of production. In Canada, that’s next to impossible to do as dairy regulations require most milk to be pooled, which allows the government to manage the price and volume of our dairy supply but also erases every tasty trace of the milk’s origin. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I drank my milk raw when I visited my aunt and uncle on their farm near Sunderland. I remember its glorious taste and texture well: it was grassy and creamy and sweet.

Health Canada considers unpasteurized milk inherently dangerous, teeming with bacteria that can multiply in minutes, which could potentially infect consumers with salmonella, listeria, E. coli and other causes of food poisoning. They have a point: pasteurization is a cornerstone of the modern food system, and it would be impossible to feed cities safely without it. Pasteurized dairy is generally safer, since heating milk kills off most harmful organisms. But the process doesn’t distinguish between “bad” bacteria—the stuff that can harm us—and “good” bacteria, which is essential to the flavour of a cheese.

Not all pasteurization is equal. We pasteurize our milk at a much higher temperature than we did a few generations ago. Dairy processors used to heat it to 63 degrees for 30 minutes, which made for fuller-bodied, more flavourful milk. Producers are now more likely to flash pasteurize, heating it to 72 degrees for 15 seconds—more expedient but far less appealing to the consumer, since the process deadens the taste. Then there’s the travesty of homogenization, which breaks up the fat globules and destroys the wonderful natural mouth feel of milk. And as for the Tetra Paks of overcooked, thin and tasteless ultra-high-temperature milk, which is heated to 140 degrees for two seconds and can then languish unrefrigerated on shelves for months—well, they malign milk’s good name….”

Read the whole thing here.

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One response to “Is the best dairy in Ontario illegal?

  1. Pingback: The Bovine reaches 405 posts & 66,666 hits as of yesterday — with no let-up « The Bovine

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