Dustin Peltier had been using the monk’s cheese for almost a decade as a chef in various restaurants around Winnipeg, ordering it from a food distributor, featuring it in cheese plates, plopping great lumps of it on gastro-pub burgers — because it had a great melting point — and believing that the earthy-tasting Trappist-monk delight, made with fresh-from-the-cow unpasteurized milk, was utterly delectable.
The more the taste lingered with Peltier, the more he thought about the cheese maker behind the cheese.
He is a short, smiley, serene 82-year-old French-Canadian monk at the Notre Dame des Prairies monastery near Holland, Man., named Brother Alberic. Who, coincidentally, had been making cheese for over 60 years and was edging closer to, as he puts it, “heaven,” and wanted to find a protégé to pass along his knowledge — and the 300-plus-year-old secret cheese recipe — before it was lost forever.
“The monastery life isn’t for everybody,” Peltier says. “It is a tough go. You’re sitting in a dim cellar, making cheese all day, but I had been using Brother Alberic’s cheese and talking it over with my wife, Rachel (Isaak), about how we should go and meet him.”
The monks don’t have a listed phone number. But they do operate a small storefront selling monastery wares, including pictures, cards, crosses, jams, honey and, of course, three-kilogram rounds of Brother’s Alberic’s celebrated cheese. The store is open weekdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Unaware of this, Peltier and Isaak arrived at 10 a.m. one day, poked around the monastery grounds, went to the nearby town to grab a bite and returned at 2p.m. to present themselves to the cheese master, pitching him on the idea that they were, in fact, the chefs/heirs he was looking for.
But Trappists are an entrepreneurial bunch. They believe in self-sufficiency. They work their land, making honey, jams — and cheese. And while Brother Alberic never sold his wheels to customers, who came from all corners of Manitoba to buy it, for more than $70 — when an equivalent wheel from Europe would retail for about three times as much — a good business is a good business. Alas, none of Alberic’s five brother monks at Notre Dame, the youngest of whom is in his 70s, wanted to be the next cheese maker. Nor did any of the aging Trappists in Quebec, giving the Manitoba monk a free hand (with a Vatican blessing) to teach Peltier.
“I started to make cheese in Quebec in 1955, “ Brother Alberic says. “It was time to turn the page.”
The recipe for Fromage de La Trappe dates back centuries to France, although in more modern times a monk named Brother Juin brought it to the monastery in Oka, Que. — in 1893 — before it migrated west in 1918. The cheese recipe arrived with a letter, or so the story goes, instructing the monks to burn the recipe should it go unused, rather than share it with the outside world.
Brother Alberic’s blend begins with unpasteurized milk from a nearby farm, which he slowly heats in a vat with rennet, a coagulant that holds things together. Once the cheese curdles, he lets it sit, then heats the cheese some more, burning off moisture, before placing it into stainless steel moulds. Weights are set on the cheese to further press out moisture.
The following morning, the fledgling wheels are set out to age on old wooden planks in a humid cellar. The cheese is handwashed daily with a sponge and brine, a micro-bacterial culture that gives it its colour (pale orange), and jousts with other bacteria to give it its flavour (delicious).
Overseeing the entire operation is a statue of the Virgin Mary.
“What Brother Alberic does is an art,” says Peltier, who underwent the monk’s crash course in February, spending a week at the monastery making cheese. “I can write down the recipe, but it is not as simple as following A, B, C. You got to feel the cheeses. You wash them for 30 to 35 days, but sometimes Brother Alberic would point to one and say, “It’s ready now.”
“He has 60 plus years of learning his craft and studying this cheese.”
One lesson the monk imparted to his pupil was that, being a monk, and being in a monastery, he wasn’t allowed to teach Isaak, and thus encouraged Peltier to pass along everything he learned. (Brother Alberic did break monastery rules by sneaking Isaak into the cellar to give her the grand tour one cold day, cheekily observing that none of the other monks were around to catch sight of her).
Peltier and Isaak are now in the process of converting an old trailer into a cheese factory. They recently bought the last five wheels of Brother Alberic’s cheese and, as their initial cheeses come of age, he has agreed to visit them, offer tips, and do some quality control.
“I want to give a push to Dustin,” Brother Alberic said, chuckling.
However smiley, Brother Alberic is typically media-shy. Over the years, he has turned down many interview requests from supplicants, but agreed to speak to the National Post for about 15 minutes, and not because he had experienced a change of heart, but because he wanted to generate some buzz for his protégé.
“Dustin will be known,” he said, firmly. “It won’t be long now before he builds his market.”
And, with that, the last and now officially retired cheese-making Trappist monk of Manitoba said goodbye.