So close, and yet so far. Canada is one of our staunchest allies and largest trading partners, but not when it comes to cheese. With few exceptions, the superb Canadian wheels that win so many American Cheese Society awards never make it across the border. (I bought the Canadian gems pictured above in Vancouver.) I would say “Tear down that wall!” but there isn’t one. The reasons are more complex.
Every year, Canadian cheesemakers scoop up dozens of ribbons at the American Cheese Society competition. Not surprisingly, they excel at British and French styles: Cheddars, bloomy-rind Brie and Camembert types and smelly washed-rind disks.
“We try many lovely Canadian cheeses at ACS, but it has been a big leap to get them here,” says Stephanie Ciano, vice president of World’s Best Cheese, a major U.S. distributor. “I have tried several times over the last 20 years, and it has not been realistic.”
Four years ago, another prominent U.S. distributor took a stab at it. Seattle-based Peterson Cheese selected 15 artisan cheeses from Quebec for a pilot program. The expectation was that American retailers would order enough monthly to fill a pallet (1,500 to 2,000 pounds) and make the trucking affordable.
That didn’t happen. Although key retailers like Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Di Bruno Bros in Philadelphia and Whole Foods expressed enthusiasm, the pricing scared them off. Most of the cheeses would have retailed for $30 to $45 a pound, says Kim Iannotti, a Peterson sales manager. As one retailer told her, “Why would I spend $30 a pound buying a Beaufort-like cheese out of Canada when I can buy actual Beaufort for less?”
Says Iannotti, “It really boiled down to price and getting enough volume into each load so the logistics worked.”
The import tariff wasn’t a huge factor, says Chris Gentine, whose Wisconsin company, Artisan Cheese Exchange, handled the paperwork. It’s significant (about 75 cents a pound) but not onerous. The bigger problem was Canada’s high milk cost, which makes its cheeses non-competitive internationally.
Canada manages its milk supply via quotas and sets the price. The government’s goal is to keep dairy farmers in business and protect them from unpredictable price swings. As a recent National Public Radio report detailed, the outcome is mixed. Canada’s dairy farms thrive, but Canadian consumers pay dearly for dairy products, including cheese.
Add a tariff and freight to those already elevated costs, and Canadian cheeses are “over the moon,” says Gentine. Another, almost laughable hurdle for Quebec creameries is that their food-safety documents—the meticulous third-party audits required by our government—are in French. “They’re very thorough,” says Gentine, “but nobody can read them.” Translating this voluminous paperwork would be cost prohibitive.
What a shame that most U.S. cheese lovers will never taste the silky Madelaine, a bloomy-rind sheep’s milk cheese that smells like porcini; or the beefy Pikauba, a raw washed-rind wheel better than any imported Saint-Nectaire. I boarded the plane with these two aroma bombs in my handbag and was mentally preparing an apology to my seatmates. Fortunately, I had the row to myself. Avonlea, a bandage-wrapped aged Cheddar from Prince Edward Island, is available in the U.S. and can hold its own against Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. (Look for Avonlea at Hy-Vee markets in the Midwest, Weis Markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Shaw's markets in the Northeast.)
On the flip side, Canada’s import quotas make U.S. cheeses hard to get and costly. Les Amis du Fromage, the Vancouver store where I shopped, stocks about a half-dozen, including Humboldt Fog and Barely Buzzed, but none are small production.
Ciano says she has not given up on importing from Canada and may try again. In the meantime, says Gentine, “We can’t share each other’s wonderful cheeses.”
Cheese Class: New and Notable from Europe
Monday, October 9
THREE SEATS LEFT
Silverado Cooking School
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
An evening devoted to great cheeses that didn’t exist a decade ago. Meet the best new wheels from Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland and beyond.