Episode 50: Cheese & Farmers’ Markets
Picnic this Summer with Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
With picnic season upon us, it seems like the perfect time to talk about a key ingredient to any basket, namely cheese.
One local BC producer has been making delicious, runny, hard, creamy, bloomy, spicy and mushroomy cheeses for twenty years!
Anya chats with Raymond Gourlay, co-owner and manager of Morningstar Farm and Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, on this episode of The Nosh.
The Little Qualicum Cheese story starts with Raymond’s parents. After spending time in Switzerland doing humanitarian aid and development work, the pair fell in love with European style cheeses. This was twenty years ago, in 2001, and upon returning back to Canada, they realized that Canadian cheeses simply lacked the same European character. Noticing a gap in the market, they snatched their chance.
The desire to see artisan cheeses come to Canada is what drove this vision. In 2001, the desire for local, handcrafted, value added foods was just starting to become more established. Wanting to be a part of this beginning-to-develop local food scene, Raymond’s parents decided to get some cows, and dive right in.
Starting out on a rented farm between Parksville and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, “Little Qualicum Cheeseworks” was born. Beginning with no knowledge of dairy farming or cheese making, the family’s idea to take on both a cheese business and dairy business, is, in Raymond’s own words, “nuts and crazy.”
“Just a real interest in cheese and agriculture was all they had, not even any business experience – just a bit of project management experience from my dad,” says Raymond. “My mom jokes frequently that if she knew how much work it would be, she never would have done it.” Luckily, in blissful ignorance, they took the leap. “It’s been a very fruitful adventure for the whole family.”
At first, it was all a huge learning curve. The Gourlays also had three young boys (Raymond and his brothers) all elementary school age, and were lucky to have very supportive parents (Raymond’s grandparents) who also got involved.
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks is most definitely a family affair; the whole family is still blessed to live in the area, and share their lives together. While Raymond’s grandparents don’t live on the farm, they are still at the property helping out every single day.
Currently, the cheeseworks and dairy both operate out of Morningstar Farm, a farm that the family purchased a few years in to their operation. All the dairy products at the farm and cheeseworks come from grass-fed cows.
“We love grass fed milk!” says Raymond. “It’s the best for making cheese, it’s the best for cows in our opinion, and it has the best flavour!”
All the pastures at Morningstar Farm are grass, and for the grazing season (the warm parts of the year), a large chunk of the herd is allowed to graze freely, while the other cows eat grass in the barn. In the colder months, the cows eat preserved, fermented grass, that has been siled in anaerobic silos.
“We take animal welfare really seriously,” says Raymond, noting that the cows’ “wellbeing, peace and calm” are of the utmost importance. They even have a cow backscratcher, keeping the herd clean and comfortable. “We are really proud of the [dairy] industry, because the standards are really high overall in Canada. When visiting many other dairy farms, we see fantastic operations all over the place.”
While the average size of a herd in Canada is about 150 cows (small enough to know them all by names and have a good handle on the wellbeing of each individual cow), the herd at Morningstar is comprised of just 50 milking cows. However, even with such a small herd, there is absolutely no shortage of cheese!
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks creates a large variety of cheese; even though they have a small cheese plant, most equipment is multi purpose. Producing everything from soft, spreadable cheeses like quark (similar to a cream cheese) to some semi-firm, very lunchable cheeses.
“We tried to make a Monterey Jack, but it was too good – we had to name it Monterey Jill!” says Raymond. “That has a few iterations such as a Hot Jill and Caraway Seed Jill, as well as a red wine infused Tipsy Jill.”
The cheeseworks also produces mold ripened cheeses and a more funky blue, as well as the cheeses that first inspired Raymond’s parents to start the cheeseworks: European style rind ripened cheeses. These involve smearing the cheese with brine every few days, which creates a very bright orange, aromatic rind on it – this is their Swiss-style Raclette!
The farm has its own local take on all the cheeses. As the recipes have developed and changed over the years, the cheeses have taken on the flavours of the cows’ diet – all the local flora. Each cheese is a very distinct product, and for that reason a lot of the cheese names are made up; they are not necessarily true to other products!
Now, Anya asked to clear up one of her biggest cheese questions – why don’t we have soft, raw milk cheeses in Canada?
“Many people aren’t aware that we have any raw milk cheeses in Canada!” replied Raymond.
In Canada, the policy is that you must pasteurize milk, which means heating it up in order to kill the overwhelming amount of bacteria, most importantly, pathogens (disease-causing bacteria). Little Qualicum Cheeseworks does this through a low temperature, long hold process, where the milk is heated to 63° C and held for 30 minutes. The milk is then cooled to either refrigeration temperature to be sold as milk, or is cooled to the low 30s, in order to be made into cheese. From here, other cheese-making bacteria can be added.
“We do that for all of our milk and fresh cheeses, but not our hard cheeses,” says Raymond. Other kill steps are involved in the production of hard cheeses: the reduction of moisture, (hard cheeses tend to be drier, and bacteria grows very slowly, if at all in a dry environment) the higher acidity added to hard cheeses, (bacteria are not prone to growing when there is a high presence of acidity) the addition of salt to make it taste like cheese, and aging. This is why hard milk cheeses can safely be produced with raw milk – the bacteria is killed off without the force of pasteurization.
However, many parts of the world produce raw milk fresh or soft cheeses safely. “I believe we could [produce raw milk soft cheeses],” says Raymond. “I believe in the quality of our milk and food handling practices. But that is the policy as it stands at this time in Canada. We do our best with that!”
Three of the cheeses at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks are produced with raw milk – a hard, welsh style sheet called Caerphilly, their Bleu Claire, and their local cheddar style cheese called Mt. Moriarty. Otherwise, all other milk to drink or for cheese, goes through their pasteurization process.
Morningstar Farm also has a very cool claim to fame: they were the first place in Canada to offer milk on tap!
A relatively new venture, the farm joined the milk business in 2018. At the beginning of their cheesemaking journey, the family’s licence only allowed them to make cheese, but after being in production for so many years they were legally allowed to sell milk.
“We entertained a number of possibilities,” says Raymond. “We don’t have the space for a bottling line, which is what most people would do, so instead, we cooked up the idea of having milk on tap! Like growler fills!”
Their milk is non-homogenized, meaning the milk and fat are not separated. “After a few hours in the fridge the cream rises to the top,” says Raymond. “You have to remember to shake the milk before you pour it!” As the milk has been pasteurized, there is still a little bit of homogenization that has been done, but still, their milk is almost always over 4% – creamy, flavourful and delicious!
Place your glass or reusable bottle on to the dispenser, pay, and the machine fills it with farm fresh milk – it’s a self serve milk machine. At the time in 2018, this was the only one in Canada, but now there are a few more people who do it as well.
“It’s a fun way to spread our message of encouraging people to come to the farm and see how it works,” says Raymond. “Take the mystery and intrigue out of farming and leave with an actual product from animals you just met!”
Not only is this an exciting and meaningful tool for customers, it’s easier work for the Gourlay family, and allows people to develop an appreciation for getting that end product.
One litre of milk is only $2.25, making the service accessible for all. “Every demographic of person in our area is in our customer base,” says Raymond. “As no packaging is involved on our end, only the pasteurization of the milk, we can still make a profit by charging low prices – it’s also good for the environment.”
“The local community is very supportive, but we miss tourists,” says Raymond. As Parksville is a tourist area, during the pandemic there has been way less tourist traffic.
“We love having people here!” says Raymond.
Open 7 days a week, 10-4 or 10-5 in the summer, people can look at their farm store and enjoy samples, self-guided tours, their cafe, milk on tap, as well as the farm and the cows! With a livestream from their robotic milker and a petting farm area, there is always something to do.
Summer Markets at Vancouver Farmers Markets
On this week’s episode, Anya also spoke with Executive Director of Vancouver Farmer’s Markets, Laura Smit, about this year’s summer markets.
Ever since the pandemic started in March 2020, the Farmer’s Market has been constantly learning, pivoting and shifting.
Luckily, the market has been deemed an essential service for groceries, and has operated throughout the pandemic, with modifications. The winter markets just finished at the end of April, and the summer markets are almost in full swing.
Back at the pandemic’s outset, market numbers seriously dropped; throughout March each market was about 50% producers, and less than 50% visitors. However, as protocols changed, producer engagement expanded.
Despite the original low numbers, the market continued to see strong support for local producers – over $10 million was made collectively by producers in 2020, a number very close to that of 2019.
The markets are not operating as events this year, but as open air grocery stores. “We told people to only send one person from a household, and we think people really listened to that and bulked up on their shopping,” says Smit. “An encouraging year!”
By supporting producers, not only is the community being provided with farm fresh food, but the money made benefits the producers themselves and all their employees, the industries that help the producer, and the local economy overall. This has been the market’s mission since it’s inception in 1995.
Now, in 2021, Vancouver Farmer’s Markets have 2 winter markets, 7 summer markets, all made up of over 250 different local businesses – wow!
There will be 2 new summer market locations, one downtown at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formally North Plaza at Vancouver Art Gallery) on Wednesdays from 2-6pm, and another at False Creek in Concord Community Park, on Thursdays from 2-6pm.
“Last year we wanted to figure out some new systems, so after having been through it all, we fixed the problem with 2 new markets,” says Smit. “We had to shift the Main Street market, but kept it close by at False Creek.”
“We don’t love to shift markets,” says Smit. “A lot of concerns and efforts and permits go into each market to ensure it is safe for all, as well as meaningful for communities.”
Understanding that mid-week markets need skytrain and bike access, these two new markets are close by transit hubs. There will be both long-standing vendors and new faces at each.
As for the rest of the summer markets, Trout Lake market is the banner market and still going strong. Kitsilano market is another “golden oldie,” according to Smit. Additionally, there are the West End, Mount Pleasant and Riley Park market, all as lovely as ever.
The markets this year will also be full of new vendors!
As for new farms, Friendly Fungi is one of them, selling specialty varieties of mushrooms, as well as Make Do Acres, growing products that are harder to get such as different hot peppers, sweet potatoes and greens.
Two new seafood vendors are being added; Howe Sound Seafood has approval to bring fresh spot prawns, and On the Line will hopefully be able to bring fresh shellfish as well.
Additionally, two plant-based cheese vendors are joining the market, one being Blue Heron Creamery, which creates cultured nut cheeses, and the second being Sin Queso, making plant-based cheese sauce.
Food trucks cannot prepare foods for consumption in the market, but their food can be eaten at any nearby park or bench!
Smit also says that while the lines may look quite long, that is only dude to social distancing – the wait is only ever 10-15 minutes max! And as buskers are no longer allowed in the market, they can be by the line, making waiting for your farm fresh food just a little sweeter.
For more information, visit eatlocal.org.