Friday, September 07, 2012

Cape Breton: Stirrings of an Artisan Economy

Standing with Ron Muise in his sheep pasture on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, you'd think that this would be the perfect setting for a thriving dairy industry. And, according to Ron, you'd be right, except that it ceased thriving a few decades ago. Growing up on the island, he remembered fifty or more dairies dotting the countryside, with happy cows munching on the rich grass that thrived on the island's sea air.

By the time I met him this year, there were only a handful left…one of which was his own Wandering Shepherd creamery near Sydney. He himself had left the island as a young man, moving to Europe to become a chef and eventually owning his own restaurants. As a chef, Muise said he'd always had a strong interest in cheese and, as is common in European restaurants, had always featured a selection of favorite cheeses for his cheese courses.

The desire to make his own cheese coincided with an opportunity to move back to his wife's family's farm on Cape Breton's Mira River, a property of about 24 hectares (just under 60 acres). He sought out the advice of Vermont's Peter Dixon, the Johnny Appleseed of the artisan cheese movement and a go-to guy for anyone getting started in the cheese biz.

Because of Canada's dairy cow quota system, and not being a big fan of goats or goat cheeses, he decided to throw in his lot with sheep. It didn't hurt that his grandmother had a sheep farm when he was growing up, and he really liked cheeses made from their milk. He built a cheese room next to the family farmhouse and last October got a license to start production of his own raw ewe's milk cheeses.

Muise makes a Roquefort-style cheese he's calling Gorm Ailig (Gaelic for "Alec's Blue") and Lauchie's Tomme, both named for his two sons, as well as an Ossau-Iraty type called Caora Caise (“Sheep Cheese” in Gaelic). Currently he's selling them at the Cape Breton Farmers' Market in Sydney and three other markets across the island, and is finding an eager audience among local chefs interested in featuring his cheeses on their menus.

He's become a mentor to a batch of young farmers eager to join the nascent local food scene. With only 45 sheep of his own and his cheese production soon growing beyond the milk they can provide, a couple of local farmers have started flocks of their own with the idea that they'll help provide the additional milk Muise will need. He's also working with the government to implement programs that will see more development in artisan production for small scale producers.

Muise is inspiring when he talks about the potential for the island to develop an artisan sector, with the rolling terrain perfect for small farms and with plenty of land available at affordable prices. The drawback? A six-month growing season, from May through October. But with the Cape Breton farmers' market and a local bank providing microloans for farmers and producers to develop their businesses, Muise is optimistic that the island can become a center for artisan products in Eastern Canada.

Read the other posts in this series: Arriving in Nova Scotia and The View, Redux, Talk about Good Stuff! and A Forager Finds Home.

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