Monday, 7 January 2013

Pine River Cheese

Just before Christmas we made a trip out to visit friends near Wingham. It seemed like a good time to also visit a place I've been meaning to go to for a while - Pine River Cheese. The factory is located in the hamlet  (or really, more of a crossroads with a name) of Pine River and is a nice new (more about that later...) mid-sized facility.

They have an attached store full of their cheese products, as well as a nice selection of complementary food products.

Since it was just before Christmas, they had a good selection of gift boxes and baskets made up.

We had arranged to have a tour of the factory with Vijay Kumar, the factory manager. With our usual impeccable timing, we had arranged to visit on a day when they were not making any cheese. As with everyone who makes cheese, cleaning is a big part of the operation, and at Pine River they make cheese one day and clean the next. This was a cleaning day.

We started upstairs where they have a little cheese museum - a display of old equipment, photos, and notes about the history of the company. There is a seating area for watching films - they get a number of school and group tours coming through. Next year the museum display is to be expanded.

You can also look down and get a panoramic view of the entire factory floor.

Tonnes of gleaming stainless steel, scrubbed and shiny, wait for the milk to be made into cheese tomorrow. It's all extremely bright and new, as a result of a catastrophic fire that destroyed the factory on September 6, 2010. It took 15 months to rebuild, and the factory has only been operating again since February 2012.

As you might suppose, this has had a big effect on their sales and availability, and they are still struggling to get back into the marketplace. Vijay is working hard to expand their profile. Many stores in Bruce county sell Pine River Cheese, and they have recently acquired vans to carry cheese as far as Pickering, London and Waterloo. They are looking to break into the Toronto market. Vijay is thinking about a cheese festival next year too. 

A few of the employees go around and finish the cleaning.

Vats on the factory floor. Pine River Cheese is, I believe, the last remaining farmer-owned cheese co-operative in southwestern Ontario; there are only a few others remaining in Eastern Ontario. All the rest have been bought by large multinational companies. As such, Pine River is also one of the last few companies still making cheese in the traditional way, or as I'm inclined to call it, real cheese. Vijay Kumar told me that 95% of cheese now being made (in Ontario? in North America?) has had the cream removed and replaced with what he referred to as margarine, or with modified milk ingredients.

If you think cheese doesn't taste as good as it used to, that would be why! Unfortunately, it's hard to find Pine River Cheese unless you live in the general area around Lake Huron. They are gearing up to full production again, but they lost a lot of customers after being mostly out of business for more than a year after the fire.

When you do find real cheese like Pine Rivers, you have to expect to pay more for it than you would for the stuff made with cheap filler ingredients. I have to say though, that Pine River is the most modestly priced real Cheddar cheese out there that I am able to find right now, and it compares very favourably in quality to Balderson, which used to be superb but is now only good. (Balderson Cheese used to be an independent dairy but it was bought by Parmalat a number of years back, and they have kept it as their high-end brand of Cheddar. In my opinion, Pine River is now the better cheese, and still less expensive.)

There is an entire room which holds the cleaning fluids, with pipes that take them throughout the factory.

This is a row of cheese presses: the drained curds are put into hoops (the rectangles seen in the picture below) which are then placed beneath these H-shaped presses for 8 to 10 hours to have yet more whey squeezed out of them.

Those grey rectangles are the hoops where the cheese curds are pressed into blocks.

These pipes that run around the factory floor bring the cleaning fluids to all the tanks and vats. Above them, you can see the windows of the museum and viewing floor.

A worker cleans out one of the cheese making vats. I'm sorry I ended up visiting on a cleaning day as seems to be my usual procedure! However, it turns out that Pine River has made and excellent video about their cheese-making process, that can be seen on YouTube. Check it out! it's impressive.

Another worker packs cheese in boxes. There are 30 full-time and about 8 part-time workers at the Pine River Cheese factory. The milk for the factory comes from 16 farmer members.

Cheddar is their specialty, but they make a good range of about a dozen other cheeses as well, including chocolate cheese! Yes, really. Mr. Ferdzy talked me into buying some and it was a big hit at our Christmas dinner. It's definitely dessert though, and not something you would put on your pizza. 

There is a climate-controlled warehouse attached to the factory, although they also have off-site aging facilities. Because of that you can still get old Cheddar and other aged cheese from Pine River, which survived since they were elsewhere at the time of the fire. Unlike a lot of cheese made at the present time, Pine River ages their cheese naturally - their 5 year old cheese really is 5 years old. According to Vijay, many cheeses nowadays are artificially aged through the addition of enzymes.

The same multinational companies that have snapped up almost every other cheese factory around would also love to snap up Pine River. They have received multiple offers to sell. So far though, Pine River remains true to their history of co-operative cheese making, and  have no intentions of selling. Their dedication shows in some of the best cheese around and it is still available at very reasonable prices. You will have to look for it though! Or maybe pay them a visit and stock up in their shop.


RuckusButt said...

Very interesting post and I am glad to learn about Pine River Cheese. Sadly for me, I live in Ottawa so it's not likely I will be able to aquire any, much as I would love to support this kind of operation (and eat good cheese!)

Frances Ranger said...

Great post, thank you. I had no idea about "cheese analogues."Glad to read your thoughts on Pine River. I've seen it at the store and will be sure to pick some up. I grew up with Balderson cheese, so saying it's better than (old-style) Balderson is high praise to me!

Ferdzy said...

Thanks, Frances. I don't know I'd say it's as good as the ORIGINAl Balderson - but I do think it's better than what they are doing now.

(And I never replied to RuckusButt, but once St. Albert is back from *their* fire, they should be producing very fine cheese again.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Ferdzy, great article! I am putting together an article for the Township of Huron-Kinloss (where Pine River Cheese is located) and I wondered if it would be okay to use some of your photos? You took some really great ones. I can even give credit to you at the bottom of the article as well, if you would like. Thanks! Alex

Ferdzy said...

Sure Alex, that would be fine. Thank you.