Some Slow Food Edmonton events are all about eating, like Indulgence and Beer and Boar. Others are more about getting to know fellow members, like the Wood Fired Solstice and the annual potluck at Mary Bailey’s residence. The focus of the Dairy Farm Field Trip at the end of September was learning.
We are very lucky to have someone as enthusiastic as Valerie in the organization – she is so energetic and positive it makes my head spin sometimes. She had the great idea of arranging a group field trip to two of our local dairy farms – Sylvan Star Cheese and Bles-Wold Dairy – and ending the day with a meal at Eco Café. Seats sold out quickly, which, although priced at $75 a ticket, was a fair price given the inclusion of three meals, the tours and transportation to and from the farms.
We were up and at ‘em early – we had to be at Southgate Mall before 8:30 a.m. Thankfully, we live right on the LRT line, which made the trip fast and convenient. Our premature wake up call was made better by the two sweet and savoury scones that greeted us upon arrival, fresh out of the oven from Duchess.
I’m fairly certain it was the butter in the scones that pushed me into nap territory, but when I woke up, we had arrived at our first destination – Sylvan Star Cheese in Red Deer County.
Sylvan Star Cheese
They were a new vendor at the City Market this year, but I was familiar with their award-winning cheese from Planet Organic, and restaurants such as Madison’s Grill who have featured their product on their menus. Though I enjoy their cheese (particularly the cumin-spiced gouda and the aged cheddar), I know the price is a deterrent for us to use it as an everyday cheese. Still, I was looking forward to see their new home, with expanded cheese making (and aging) facilities.
Jan Schalkwijk was our host for the tour. First, he invited us to help ourselves to samples of their cheese. Mack and I were able to try a few varieties, which was good enough for us (10 in the morning as it was), but I was hoping for a guided tasting from the expert himself – for example, running through flavours and textures to look for.
After the snack break, Jan told us how he got into cheesemaking in Alberta – essentially, because he couldn’t find good cheese here after immigrating from Holland, he decided to use the skills he had to make good cheese himself.
Jan introduces his business
Though Jan was fantastic at answering questions, I thought the tour side of things could have been better thought out – we could have started on the factory floor, for example, where the cheese is made, then worked our way to the aging and smoking rooms.
The smoker (Jan uses maple wood)
Regardless, it was a little frustrating not being able to hear our guide. Jan unfortunately does not have a voice that carries, and most often, our large group were in rooms where it was difficult to hear him due to a combination of factors including space constraints and whirring fans. A microphone – or dividing the group – would have helped immensely.
Where the cheese is made
Though I didn’t get as much from the tour as I would have wanted, it really was neat to see the humidity-controlled rooms where the cheese is aged. At the end of each of the shelves was a post-it containing the batch date – for the first sixty days, the wheels are turned once a day to prevent mould, and after that, turned once a week.
With my birthday batch of cheese!
It was also hard not to appreciate their expansive facility. Though there seem to be few employees on his team, they have ensured that they will have ample room to grow. The room below, for example, will be their new cheese aging room – it was absolutely massive, but given their increasing popularity, it’s not surprising.
Coming soon – another cheese aging room
Valerie’s post on this trip is much more detailed, particularly on this aspect of the day. She also has many great photos of the facility!
Mack loves cheese!
Before departing for our next stop, we had a nice soup and sandwich lunch, where we were able to socialize with Sherene and Su.
A tasty minestrone soup – just what I needed that morning
A half hour later, we arrived at Bles-Wold. Unlike Sylvan Star, Bles-Wold yogurt is something that I regularly have on hand – their fruit yogurt is thick, not too sweet, and is definitely more substantial than commercial varieties – and their plain yogurt is my go-to choice for salad dressings and other recipes. When we drove up to the farm, it was reassuring to see that the red barn pictured on their containers actually exists, and happens to be where the yogurt is made!
This tour experience was much more organized. The group was split into two right off the bat – my group followed Hennie upstairs for an introduction to Bles-Wold.
Hennie Bos described how the company began – after many years of experience running a dairy farm in Holland, he and Tinie moved to Alberta and started a dairy farm in 1994 with 60 Holsteins. In 1996, Tinie started making yogurt, and slowly, business grew – they now have 250 cows. Their products are currently stocked in 120 stores in Alberta, and most recently, two stores in Vancouver began carrying their wares.
Hennie talks to the group
It was most interesting to hear Hennie explain that yogurt is quota-based system in Alberta, which only produces up to 0.5% of the demand (rights to produce more can be purchased from other farmers). The other part of their business is producing milk, which is sold to Saputo.
We then switched with the other group, and Tinie talked about the yogurt-making process on the lower level of the barn. She said she was first prompted to make yogurt for her daughter, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and had to avoid commercially-produced yogurt that contained artificial sweeteners. Using her brother’s recipe, she eventually started making yogurt for family and friends as well, and they suggested that it might be a viable business.
Bles-Wold yogurt was first sold at farmers’ markets, where Tinie appreciated the feedback from customers. She found that Canadians preferred a much thicker yogurt than the Dutch, and liked being able to choose from a variety of flavours.
Menu (plain is by far the most popular, followed by French vanilla, then blueberry)
She pointed to the machine behind her where the yogurt is made: it all starts with 3.5% butter fat milk. Skim milk powder is added for calcium and milk solids, then the mixture is transferred to the double-walled machine to be pasteurized, then separated. Cultures (from Denmark) are added, then allowed to grow for fifteen hours. The last step is integrating fruit jelly mixes (containing no artificial sweeteners or stabilizers from a company in Vancouver) to produce flavoured yogurt. The amount of yogurt they produce every week varies somewhat (depending on market need), but that week, they would be making 3000L of yogurt.
Where the yogurt is made
Tinie said she would be going to Europe in October to learn more about drinkable yogurt, which many of her customers have asked about. She said she had played around with various recipes, but hadn’t yet found one that worked.
Next, we moved on to the barns – one contained the calves (one just a day old!), and another, the 250 Holsteins (and one bull!). Everyone seemed to be just as delighted to see the young cows as we were, and even better, Hennie and Tinie had set out samples of their yogurt on the table for everyone.
Mack with a container of Bles Wold yogurt
The large barn that held the adult Holsteins was a sight to see (and smell, I suppose, but by that time, we had acclimatized somewhat). Though the cows typically have access to pasture, because they were expanding the barn this year, the cows had to remain indoors during this process – they will be back outside in the fenced pasture next year.
I am such a tourist
The notable features of this barn were the mechanized helpers inside – one that swept the hay back towards the cows as they nosed through it – and another behind them that we joked was a Roomba for fecal matter – a motorized circular machine that pushed manure down into the slats below.
Feed sweeper (we didn’t get a photo of the Roomba, unfortunately!)
Hennie was also very proud to show off the milking machine, where two cows could be automatically milked, a process that usually takes between 5-10 minutes. Here is a link to a video if you’re interested in seeing how it works – a cow steps in, a brush simultaneously cleans the teets and stimulates them, sensors pinpoint the udders, and the machine starts to collect the milk. It really was a sight to see.
The magical milking machine
Valerie really had timed everything quite well – we never felt rushed at any part during the day. We all had our fill of the milking machine, Holsteins, and of course, yogurt – and got on the bus for the journey to our last destination that day, dinner at Eco Cafe.
Leaving the barn
I had heard a lot about Eco Cafe, and their pride in sourcing local ingredients (including products from Greens, Eggs and Ham). Valerie had arranged a pre-fixe meal for the group, which was included in the price of the tour.
Located at Pigeon Lake in a small strip mall, Eco Cafe was much smaller than I had anticipated (our group took over the restaurant!). But what it lacked in size it made up for in charm, with lots of natural light, warm paint colours and friendly staff.
We started off with a plate of smoked prairie trout, served with cold pressed canola oil Mousseline in a corn and sweet pepper crepe, with greens and candied beets in a yogurt maple dressing. Though the dish was pleasant enough, it wasn’t memorable though I did like the dressing.
Smoked prairie trout with greens and beets
The entree was delicious, however – fall comfort on a plate. The bison short rib ragout was served over goat cheese mashed potatoes with oven roasted root vegetables. Everyone around the table – Valerie, Vanja and Mack – loved this dish. The meat was unbelievably tender, and thankfully for Vanja and I, the goat cheese was subtle.
Bison short rib ragout
Valerie had told us that homemade cookies were waiting for us for the trip home, so we opted not to order dessert. Instead, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs before the trip home.
I always make a beeline for gazebos
More napping on the bus ride back, and before we knew it, we were in Edmonton again. Thanks again to Valerie (and Vanja) for all of your work in planning the trip!