'I have 12 minutes left to talk to you before the cheese has to go down," says Sylvain Pruneau, caught in the midst of morning production at the Abbaye Saint-Benoît-du-Lac cheese factory, part of a Benedictine monastery 150 kilometres southeast of Montreal.
The monastery was founded in 1912 by exiled French monks who had moved to Belgium before relocating to Canada. The 50 to 60 men who now reside in the monastery live by the motto "pray and work." And since 1943, part of the work at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac has been making cheese. It is the only cheese factory managed by Benedictine monks in North America.
The monks started their cheese making with a blue called Ermite, but today Mr. Pruneau and 11 other full-time employees produce nine cheeses ranging from pressed ricotta to aged Gruyère-style wheels. Their other famous blue, Bleu Bénédictin, made since 2000, is an award-winner across Canada, most recently winning the blue-cheese category in the 2006 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
Both blues are made using the same process; it is at the ripening stage that the differences begin. Ermite, the milder of the two, is aged for five weeks, then removed from the ripening room and the natural mould rind that has formed is washed away. The Bleu Bénédictin stays in the ripening room for three months and the blue mould rind is kept on. This outer layer, and longer aging, help to add flavour and ripen the cheese further, making its texture smoother and creamier than its younger sibling.
Both blues have a cream-coloured paste veined with a blue-green mould, but can easily be distinguished by the different-coloured foil in which they are wrapped: silver for the Ermite and gold for the Benedictine.
When you slice into them, the Ermite has more crumble compared to the more velvety texture of the Bénédictin. Both cheeses are well balanced in flavour and have a nice salty linger, with a mushroomy essence. The Ermite has a grittiness to its paste and is tangier on the finish, while Bénédictin is more powerful, well-rounded and fuller.
The tradition of cheese making at the monastery fulfills St. Benedict's teaching that to be a true monk one should live by the work of one's hands. The sales of the cheese in Quebec and across Canada help keep the community of Abbaye Saint-Benoît-du-Lac self-sufficient.
The monks also indulge in the cheeses themselves. "We don't get too much bad news from them," Mr. Pruneau jokes when asked how the monks enjoy the product.
One of the tenets of the monks' life is keeping a separation from those who do not share the same purpose. If you're serious about your cheese, you may want to save these two blues just for yourself.
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.
On the Block
Cheeses: Ermite and Bleu Bénédictin
Origin: Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Que.
Producer: Abbaye Saint-Benoît!
Cheese maker: Sylvain Pruneau
Milk: pasteurized cow
Type: blue, semi-soft, natural rind
Shape: 2-kilogram wheel
Distributor: Provincial Fine Foods (Ontario) and Fromages CDA (Quebec)
Ateliers Saint-Grégoire, Abbaye Saint-Benoît!
Select Loblaws and Metro locations
Toronto: McEwan Foods, Fiesta Farms, Pusateri's, Mabel's Bakery, All the Best Fine Foods, Whole Foods Market, A Taste of Quebec, Cheese Boutique
Newmarket: Nature's Emporium
Oakville: Whole Foods Market
Guelph: Ouderkirk and Taylor
Ottawa: Serious Cheese
Calgary: Blush Lane
Vancouver: Benton Brothers, Les Amis de Fromage