For my first food-related post, the topic that naturally came to mind was to tell how and why my passion for food came to life and grew over the years.
…Don’t run away just yet. I am not going to tell you too much about myself growing up and learning to cook with my mom and that kinda stuff…
I thought instead I would dig a little deeper in my family’s history and tell you all about how it relates to this wheel of Canadian made Brie, this creamy blue or tangy and fresh-tasting goat cheese you love so much and regularly buy at your local grocery store or order in a fancy dish at the restaurant.
Alexis. Perhaps this name sounds familiar. The “Alexis de Portneuf” brand takes up quite some space at many grocery stores across Canada in the fine cheese section, alongside many other brands of Canadian made and imported fine cheeses.
However, way before the cheese brand, there was the character, Alexis Cayer, who has existed…for real. He was my ancestor; my great-great grand-father on my mother’s side.
The story of my family is directly tied to the story of the land. The land surrounding the current location of Quebec City was traditionally occupied by the Huron-Wendat First Nation. Almost 200 years ago, the first settler of European origin to pay interest at the land located 50 km north of the City, on the plain of the St.Anne river about 75 km upstream from its junction with the St.Lawrence, at the foothills of the Laurentian mountains, was Alexis Cayer. He became one of the founding fathers of Saint-Raymond de Portneuf, a former forestry and agriculture town currently leading major diversification efforts and on its way to become an outdoor recreation mecca. On a mission to log, farm and establish a settlement on the land given by the Crown to brave and hard-working young men, Alexis made Saint-Raymond his home.
Alexis’ legacy was his knowledge and passion for the land and his strong family values, which were passed down to his children and grand-children who became landscapers, builders and farmers, and finally, cheese makers.
Henri was my grand-father. He was smart and hardworking. However, he didn’t really enjoy vegetable farming and the hard labour in the fields that he had to do as a child to support his parents on their farm. He certainly had a different vision for himself. At 19 years old, he got his first contract as a forestry foreman and he was managing 40 guys. What was the most interesting part to him was to arrange transport of the lumber from far and remote logging sites.
Henri was also a real entrepreneur. A few years later, he took over the distribution of the dairy products from his parents’ farms. He thought the milk and dairy distribution around town offered better opportunities than vegetable farming and weekly market sales. On his parent’s land, he put up little building with large fridges to stock the milk as well as bottling equipment. “La Laiterie Chez Nous” was founded.
The first morning he went on his milk run, he took 18 bottles with him but sadly brought 12 back home at the end of his shift. The following fall, he was selling 300 bottles a day and had extended his milk run significantly. Soon enough, his own cows were not producing enough milk to supply his clients so Henri started acquiring more cattle and expanding the stables. Buying cows, growing the cattle and reselling them was also a lucrative activity for him. In addition, he invested lots of time, research and effort into breeding milk cows. Over the years, Henri was awarded multiple times for the excellence of his cattle-raising.
In 1951, Henri expanded his dairy production even more and started purchasing pasteurization equipment, a bottling plant and a fleet of delivery vehicles to expand the milk distribution route to the neighboring communities and even all the way to the outskirt of Quebec City. His production consisted of bottled milk, cream, butter…and ice cream!
Vintage bottle caps. Source: laiteriesduquebec.com
In 1969, Henri had some more grand ideas and took off for France to explore the opportunity of making fine cheeses right at his Saint-Raymond dairy farm and to learn all about the ancient French tradition in cheesemaking. He knew the milk producers in Quebec had significant surpluses but strangely enough, we were importing tons of fine cheeses from France. From then, Henri was convinced that fine cheesemaking in Quebec had a promising future and he started investing seriously into it.
In Montpellier, Henri met Mr. Roger Capdepon, who soon after immigrated to Canada and started making cheese with grand-pa…Henri was kind and caring and family meant a lot to him. Therefore, Mr. Capdepon soon was considered as a family member. Brie, camembert, blue cheese were produced at the little factory of the rang St.Jacques. Their team also specialized in goat cheese making and soon took over the largest chunk of the provincial market.
In 1976, the dairy production counted 70 employees. Denis, my uncle was the general manager, René, my uncle and godfather, the accountant and my great-aunt Eva was the head of the research lab. Research partnerships were also established with Université Laval. Together, they all worked hard to create new products and promote fine cheeses to an ever-growing market throughout the entire province of Quebec. When he took over the business in the late 70’s upon Henri’s retirement, my uncle Denis and his team expanded the distribution of more products to further away markets, with more investments in marketing and better production efficiencies.
Almost every member of our family has been involved with the Fromagerie at a certain point in time. I myself have manned exhibit booths as a teenager at some fairs, shows, festivals and farmers markets and I remember it being a lot of fun to promote and sell the products I knew so well, to learn more about the making processes and spend time with my elderly cousins.
Partners and employees were also considered family by my grand-father and, growing up, I remember my grand-parents hosting huge reunions and gatherings. There were always people randomly dropping by at their house, who would be greeted with good home cooking, fine cheeses and wine. My grand-father also use to like his gin…
In the early 2000’s, the Fromagerie was sold to Saputo. Although Saputo is a big corporation, they have always honoured the family tradition and artisanal character of the cheeses, which are still produced in Saint-Raymond in the same factory. My aunt Reine stayed on for a few years in her role of Director of Operations to ensure a smooth transition. If you happen to be passing by, there still is a cute little cheese store in my grand-parents’ house, with lots of family photos on the walls and many family artifacts displayed.
Back in the days, it was pretty unusual to have brie, goat and blue cheese on the table anywhere in Quebec, and even more so in Western Canada…Back then it was mostly the reign of good old cheddar. My grand-father certainly has transmitted us the taste for good quality food, his love for the land and nature and his family values. He also contributed in building our most recent Canadian pride for artisanal food and local savoir-faire and contributed to a certain extent to the refinement of the Canadians’ taste for fine foods.
I can’t quite say that I am related to a wheel of Brie…nor that cheese runs through my veins…well, not quite…but almost!