Travel around Quebec’s bucolic Eastern Townships and inevitably someone will ask, “Have you met Brother Patrick? And have you tasted his cheeses?” Brother Patrick Flageole is the young monk leading cheese production at the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac. The abbey, founded in 1912, has been making cheese since 1943, starting with a blue called Ermite. Today, the monks handcraft 300,000 kilograms of cheese per year, as well as making sauces, jams and apple cider. It’s part of a centuries-old monastic tradition of feeding both body and soul with nourishing food and drink. For Brother Patrick, the youngest of the abbey’s 30 monks at age 35, cheese-making is quite simply his calling.
When did you decide to become a monk?
When I was around 15 years old, I decided to become a priest. At age 20, I spent a few days at the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, and I felt that this was my place, it was where I belonged. I entered the monastery at age 23 and will eventually be ordained to the priesthood.
How did you get involved in cheese-making?
The first year that I lived at the abbey, I worked at the cider factory. The next year, help was needed at the cheese factory. After one year, the Superior asked me to take classes toward eventually taking charge of the cheese factory.
What kinds of cheeses does the monastery produce?
The process of making cheese at the factory is an artisanal craft. We produce three basic kinds of [cow’s milk] cheese in 12 different flavours. We make a blue cheese, a Swiss-type cheese and Fontina, an Italian Gouda cheese. We have two cheeses that are smoked: smoked Fontina and smoked blue cheese. We have one cheese made from goat milk, Le Moutier.
What is your philosophy around the cheese you make?
My philosophy of cheese-making, in the first place, is that cheese is a living organism that requires our attention and care. A cheese factory requires that we are there 365 days of the year. We have cheeses that mature and ripen, and, if the cheese is ready to move from the maturation room to the refrigerator, this must be done, even if we are celebrating on a day such as Christmas.
What is your relationship with the other cheese-makers in the Eastern Townships?
It’s really good. We don’t hesitate to help each other when we have various problems with production. Often we have the same problems. Each cheese factory has its own type of cheese, and in this region there are a lot of small cheese factories. We aren’t in competition with them.
What do you enjoy most about making cheese at the monastery?
I think it’s the handcrafted process and the latitude we have to experiment in making new types of cheese. Where experimentation is concerned, the sky’s the limit.
Three Heavenly Cheeses to Try
Brother Patrick Flageole recommends these cheeses from Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, which you can buy at the abbey or at various fromageries across Quebec
Smoked Fontina: Hickory-smoked Italian Gouda. “The smoke gives it a honey-coloured crust,” says Brother Patrick.
Ermite: The abbey’s original cheese. “It’s a really mild blue cheese, perfect for people who have never tasted a blue cheese.”
Frère Jacques: A popular Swiss-type cheese. “It has a hazelnut taste with a yellow rind, and beautiful ‘eyes’ in the paste.”
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