Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cheesehead Revisited - Part 1 - Dispatches from Maine

Back in May 2009 I posted a two-part discourse on cheese and confessed that I am a tried and true “cheesehead.”

“After all, it is cheese that has made America the great country it is.”  I noted, too, that the life of a cheesehead “is dictated by powers and forces others may not fully comprehend . . . You do not just eat cheese, you revere cheese and those who make it for your enjoyment . . . you go where the cheeses are.”  Based on reader comments, it seems these two postings have been among the more popular ones I have posted to date.  It is gratifying to discover that there are others like me out there who share my hankering for a good hunk of cheese.

Another past posting touched on the subject of cheese curds, those firm chunks of unripened cheese, and their use in the preparation of poutine:

I search out both at every opportunity afforded me.  Unfortunately neither are that easy to find, especially here in the USA.  But “seek and you shall find” are the words I live by when it comes to any form and style of cheese. 

This past weekend my wife and I were up in Québec, and although I did not enjoy a helping of “une maudite poutine,” I was lucky enough to stop by the Fromagerie La Chaudière in Lac-Mégantic, one of my favorite local creameries in the Canton de l’Est in the heart of the province’s dairyland.  I have been eating their tasty curds for years and always try to score some when I am north of the border.  I have been known to drive several kilometers out of my way for a bag of these delightful curds.  Usually I stop at one of several village depanneurs I have come to know over my years of exploring this area.

There is also a small grocery store on the main street in Lac-Mégantic, a charming resort town on the shores of the lake by the same name.  It is the source of the Rivière Chaudière flowing north to where it flows into the St. Lawrence at Québec City and the route Benedict Arnold and his men followed during their invasion of British Canada in 1775.  I have frequently stopped in Lac-Mégantic for a bag or two of curds and to walk through the very pretty and tranquil lakeside park before making my way to the nearby Canadian-US border at Coburn Gore, Maine.

And so it was this past Saturday.  We had spent a lovely day in the Townships and once again I was driving in the direction of Lac-Mégantic.  This time, however, the trip had a most bittersweet of endings.  We soon found ourselves with the town between us and the border.   As we approached from the north passing through the villages of Stornoway and Nantes, we noticed a thick black plume of smoke rising near the center of town.  I commented to Sally Ann that something was on fire, but had not the faintest notion of the full extent of the tragedy unfolding just a few miles in front of us. 

Soon we were passing the La Chaudière creamery on the northern edge of town and Sally Ann asked why we did not stop and buy the curds right from the source.  I always thought the place was simply where everything was made; I never imagined they actually sold their cheese products on site.  But it made sense to me, and following a quick U-turn, we pulled up in front and parked.

The Fromagerie La Chaudière was founded by Vianney Choquette in 1976 and today the family business is carried on by his three sons.  The family prides itself in its ability to produce quality cheese through sustainable development and a concern for the local environment.  All of their cheeses are kosher certified and free of animal rennet, and the free range cows used in milk production are raised on local organic farms with pesticide-free fields and pastures. 

Entering the creamery, I had great difficulty keeping my eyes in their sockets as we discovered a veritable cornucopia of cheeses, cheese products, and other dairy items.  Naturally, my attention focused almost immediately on the variety of curds and blocks of unripened cheese which are produced overnight and distributed fresh the following day.  And there were not just the small 85 and 200 gram bags found in stores.  Here one could purchase 340 gram, 1 kilo and 2 kilo bags of curds and various sizes of block cheese!!  I decided to go for the gusto and purchased a kilo (roughly 2 1/4 pounds) to take back to Maine figuring it would keep me in squeaky cheese (“Skouik” as they market it at La Chaudière) for awhile.

As we prepared to leave we noticed that the sky still hung heavy with dark smoke from the large fire burning near downtown.  As much as we enjoy our walks in town, we decided to give the fire a wide berth and followed another route to the border.  When we finally reached the US customs station at the rooftop of New Hampshire, the Customs and Border Protection agent asked us where we had been in Canada and whether we had anything to declare.  I mentioned that I had purchased a bag of curds (I don’t recall whether I mentioned the fact that it was a kilo).  The agent then asked if they were for my “personal use.”  Thinking “damned straight,” but respectfully replying “yes sir,” we also mentioned our brief stop in Lac-Mégantic.  The agent then asked if we had seen or heard the major explosion there earlier in the day.  We had not really sensed that anything was terribly amiss when we were there, but this would have explained the thick black pall of smoke hanging over the town upon our arrival.  It would be several hours later, when I had a chance to check the news online, that I discovered the stories of the massive derailment of several tanker cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick and the resulting explosions that gutted the entire downtown area killing an estimated 50 people.  One of the buildings destroyed was the grocery store where I once bought my bags of curds.

I have long associated Lac-Mégantic with my quest for the tastiest cheese curds anywhere.  And I have always enjoyed walking it streets and the tranquil lakeside park.  It is sad to think that all of this is gone now.  My prayers go out to the people of Lac-Mégantic who have lost so many family and friends as well as the heart of their lovely town.

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