Doing it their whey: Meet Ontario’s century-old cheese factory

For 133 years — and despite two fires — Pine River Cheese has been delighting fromage fanciers by the shores of Lake Huron
By Sarah B. Hood - Published on June 20, 2018
people making cheese in a factory
These days, Pine River products can be found all across Ontario, but the factory is still a destination of choice for cheese lovers. (Facebook.com/Pine River Cheese)

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Most Ontarians’ list of favourite summer foods would probably start with ice cream, or maybe peaches or cherries or something from the barbecue. But for people who grew up near Lake Huron, it definitely includes the local cheese.

“Pine River Cheese has been a part of my family for a very, very long time. I have been going since I was born,” says local resident and cheese enthusiast Kim Lawlor, whose current favourite is the caramelized onion cheddar. When she was a child, she’d watch from the observation deck as the cheese was made; then she’d get some from the factory store.

Like other devotees, Lawlor grew to enjoy “that cheese, and only that cheese.” If it wasn’t Pine River, she says, “I didn’t want it.”

Andrea McKenzie has a similar affection for the cheese of her childhood. She now lives in Toronto, but still spends summers by the shores of Lake Huron, near Kincardine, where her parents used to take the family for camping trips.

“Pine River cheddar was a special treat,” she recalls. “By the way, as a child, I loathed cheese. Pine River was probably the only cheese I ate — and I loved it. You could buy it in the grocery stores in that area, but we were living in Streetsville at the time, and you couldn’t buy it there, so it really was a special treat that you could only get in the summertime.”

Originally opened in 1885, Pine River Cheese & Butter Co-op has operated as a farmer-owned co-operative since 1939. The first factory building, which stood on the banks of the Pine River, was destroyed by fire in 1981. A new site was built across the river, but in September 2010, it also suffered fire damage, to the dismay of the local community.

“I remember getting the call when the cheese factory was on fire, when I was in university,” says Lawlor, who recalls that the news was “gut-wrenching.”

“Luckily, the cheese inventory survived,” says Pine River CEO Ulrike Prehn. “A lot of our aging cheese was salvaged; the area that was affected was mostly close to the employee cafeteria. The damage was mostly smoke, but the entire inside had to be cleaned up. It took about a year and a half to get back to production.”

What makes Pine River cheese so addictive? It’s partly the small-batch traditional production methods, which are based on fresh milk instead of on the milk powder used by some larger concerns. “The milk is supplied via Dairy Farmers of Ontario,” says Prehn, who grew up on a dairy farm. “We are owned by 15 farmers.”

Although the factory still makes old favourites, such as cheddar with herb and garlic or onion and parsley, it has added to its roster in recent years as Ontarians have begun embracing different kinds of local and international cheese. For example, Pine River now makes European-style Pressato and Asiago. “We also diversified into what I call this the gourmet cheese category,” Prehn says. “We launched goat cheeses two years ago: our Capro Nero and Caprino al Vino.”

But you can’t get much more Canadian than the cheddar with craft-beer cheese puck, a new product made with brew from MacLean’s Ales, in nearby Hanover.

These days, Pine River cheese can be found all across Ontario, but the factory — and its observation window — is still a destination of choice, especially for people who remember it from their childhood.

“Just picture a golden summer’s day, green fields and lawns and a bunch of kids running around. Those are the kinds of memories it brings back,” says McKenzie. “And the special delight of Pine River cheddar: that memory will last my life. It evokes a lot of emotions as well as the taste — the carefreeness of childhood — and it’s all tied together with place.”

Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.

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