Small artisan cheese producer – that tends to sound oh so romantic and politically correct, evoking picturesque images of bucolic landscapes – but on closer inspection it so often is about sheer survival, stress, sacrifices, and (at least seen from my urban perspective) borderline chaos. I have encountered scenarios so extreme that I had to actively keep knowing about them separate from the resulting cheese and its quality… But it doesn’t need to be that way.
In May I travelled across Vermont and the east of Canada, trying to get to know beside lots of wine (yes!) as much cheese as possible. On my first night in Nova Scotia (where they make brilliant bubbles) I encountered Urban Blue, courtesy of Domaine du Grand Pré’s highly recommended restaurant Le Caveau. An extraordinarily focussed, yet melting on the tongue blue cow’s milk cheese, it was to turn up reliably in every cheese counter and on every cheese plate during the following days. And it came from Halifax! Which meant of course that I had to find out more about it, and consequently squeezed in a short, slightly breathless visit at Blue Harbour Cheese in the North End of Halifax.
Where I met Lyndell Findlay, its maker. Lyndell is 67, super fit, super tidy, and unmistakably of Australian origin. Her passport however, since 1999, has been a Canadian one: „I used to work with refugees for the UN in a number of very interesting places, but spent many summers on the Canadian east coast. And I simply knew this would be my new home.“ A new life, a new career, not altogether easy. She liked the idea of making cheese, but had to learn it first. She went to Ohio for hands-on knowledge, to Vermont for the theory. Blue cheese had always been a favorite, and she knew she would have to start her own business, as cheesemakers are thin on the ground in Nova Scotia.
She found a cottage in Halifax and converted it into a business space. The front part is rented by a gluten-free bakery, in the back, almost invisible, resides Blue Harbour Cheese: a super-tidy, rationally equipped and arranged mini-cheesemaking facility.
Urban Blue was created in the course of many two kilo experiments, and with the help of Pete Luckett, the owner of a local grocery chain (and winery) who had his team blindtasting every batch and providing feedback. Today Lyndell twice a week works 240 liters of pasteurized milk from the local dairy into blocks of one kilo each which are dry salted three times, pierced with the aid of a custom-made device and finally wrapped in paper. Internally the blue mould is mostly growing in the pierced veins, on the outside it develops as a dry, mushroomy bluish-grey thin rind.
The location in town has its challenges, as for instance getting the whey to a local farmer who feeds it to his pigs. But this woman obviously has been solving problems of a very different caliber. And she also found a source for raw sheep’s milk. Once a week, during the season, she now makes Electric Blue (cylindrical, about the size of a Fourme de Montbrison, very fine) as well as the beer-washed Hiphop (a square soft cheese based on Maroilles, which tames the milk’s richness in an unexpected and successfully acidity-driven way). Still, Urban Blue remains the uncontested star of this unusual startup which is proof that creativity does not necessarily have to mean chaos.