Baluchon is the story of a love lost and, two decades later, found again.
Marie-Claude Harvey and Michel Pichet were childhood sweethearts in the village of Champlain, Québec, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River near Québec City. But by the time they graduated from high school, they had drifted apart. She found a husband, he found a wife, they both had families before their marriages ended.
Twenty years later they met again. He owned an organic dairy farm. She wanted to make cheese. Obviously, their love was still there, now fired by a common passion for dairy farming and cheesemaking. Thus, they married and 10 years ago, Fromagerie F.X. Pichet came to be in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, Québec. Baluchon was their first-born cheese.
The name in French refers to the small bundle of belongings travelers carried before the advent of mass transportation. Such a traveler, as a mouse character called Hapi, appears on all packaging for cheeses produced at the fromagerie on the 260-acre farm called La Ferme F.X. Pichet, after Michel’s father.
Michel and Marie-Claude are devoted to organic farming and cheesemaking. In Québec, the certification process is rigorous, but they cannot see proceeding otherwise. Michel says: “It’s our way of life.”
Their way of life lead them to dominate the 2014 Canadian Cheese Awards/Le Concours des fromages fins canadiens with Baluchon being named Canadian Cheese of the Year in addition to Best Organic Cheese and Best Semi-Soft Cheese.
In Sélection Caseus 2014, the prestigious competition for Québec cheese, Baluchon was awarded Prix du Public in the semi-soft category. Even five years ago, in the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, Baluchon was declared best organize cheese.
Baluchon is exquisite, exemplifying the best in an organic, semi-soft cheese with a washed rind. It is made with thermized cow’s milk and ripened for a minimum of two months. In Québec, thermized milk—heated to 60 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds—is considered raw milk.
Baluchon is a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth cheese that tastes of hazelnut, cream, butter and leaves a slight clover aftertaste, so you really do taste the terroir.
The compact cheese plant is located on the farm in Champlain steps from the family home. Affinage rooms and the retail store are 20 kilometres away in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade.
When they were getting started more than a decade ago, Marie-Claude and Michel consulted André Fouillet, a cheese expert from France, who recommended they use a cheesemaking process he developed when working with Oka, the Canadian classic. Fouillet consulted with a number of Québec fromageries, witness the many semi-soft, washed-rind cheeses produced in the region. Jonathan Portelance, a collaborator at the time, was inspired by the fruity aroma and floral taste of the French Comté.
“But Balachon is unique,” says Marie-Claude, “because of our milk and our way of making cheese. Right from the start, we wanted to use non-pasteurized milk—for the taste. Good cheese starts with good milk. We prefer to use pure, organic milk because the integrity of milk is important to us. With conventional milk, you just don’t know what’s all in the milk.”
An organic milk producer and cheesemaker (who, incidentally, works at giant Saputo) suggested the name Baluchon as the cheese could be served on tables around the world. She still supplies some milk and remains a good friend.
Why has Baluchon been so successful?
“Because of the distinctive aroma and taste that’s stems from a certain synergy,” says Marie-Claude. “Our milk comes from a mix of breeds, Holsteins, Swiss Browns and the Canadienne. In our pastures, we have a mix of five or six different plants, grasses, clover, sweat peas and so on. In the plant, we have a mix of talented people. All that ‘team work’ comes together in le Baluchon.”
Cheesemaker Remi Gélinas is a key member of the team. He’s been with the fromagerie less than two years but has 25 years of experience in cheese and milk production.
What pairs well with Baluchon?
“Any tasty wine, red or white, that has a lot of aroma,” Marie-Claude says, expressing a preference for shiraz. In beer, she suggests a good amber or red.
Where is Baluchon available outside of Québec?
Baluchon now is widely available in cheese shops and Loblaws stores, especially since it was named Cheese of the Year in the spring. Baluchon and F.X. Pichet’s other cheeses are distributed by Fromages CDA which represents members of the Québec Artisan Cheese Guild. Telephone 1-866-448-7997 or 514-648-7997, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheese-head-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca is founder and director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival