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The path to a world-winning cheese title

“If anyone in this family could do it,” her father said of the business idea, “it would be you.”

Its name is Lankaaster and, in 2013, it brought international attention to Canadian cheese by capturing top honours at the Global Cheese Awards.

This Gouda-style cheese, inspired by traditional boerderij kaas (farm cheese) from the Netherlands, was created by Margaret Peters-Morris, the president of Glengarry Fine Cheese Company. “The first thing you taste,” she says, “is a little sweetness with a subtle caramel note, then buttery, then a note of crystallized pineapple, producing a lovely aged cheese flavour.”

Aged for six to 10 months, it is shaped like a loaf, as it’s meant to be sliced and eaten on bread, as Dutch farmers do.

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When a judge at the 2012 American Cheese Society Awards — at which Lankaaster won the Gouda category — suggested that Peters-Morris enter the Global competition held in Somerset, England, where Cheddar cheese originated, she figured she had a winner.

The Glengarry Fine Cheese story

As often happens, successful businesses start with the family. Peters-Morris grew up on the family farm in Lancaster, Ont. In 1957, her parents had emigrated from Holland to Quebec. Initially, they were tenant farmers, eager to own their own farm. That goal was realized a mere 10 years later when her father purchased a 167-acre property in Glengarry County, 116 kilometres southeast of Ottawa. Starting out with sport horses (which were his passion) and beef cattle, he eventually got into the milk business with a herd of Holsteins.

After high school, Peters-Morris enrolled in agriculture at McGill’s Macdonald College. “I knew the course options they offered, the exceptional profs, and, being 45 minutes away, I could get home to help out on weekends,” she says.

She recognized the scope of the agriculture and food sector, and she wanted to work in the field. The idea of owning her own business, though, wasn’t even a dream.

Photo: Jacqueline Milne.

Following graduation, she worked in agricultural-commodity trading, then for an Ontario farm organization, working directly with farmers. She returned to Lancaster to be married and to work with her father on the dairy farm. Although her love affair with agriculture endures, the marriage didn’t last. “I am one of those people who is better off on my own,” she says matter-of-factly.

Peters-Morris always loved to cook, learning first with her 4-H cooking club, and then learning how to make yogurt with her mother. It was her father, however, who encouraged her to make cheese. “If anyone in this family can do it, it would be you,” he said. When he suggested there was a whole bulk tank of milk at her disposal, he ignited a spark. “Why not give it a try?” he asked.

Her response? “Sure, why not!” When she learned that a great aunt had been the cheese- and butter-maker in her family’s home village in the Netherlands, she felt a connection. That feeling quickly morphed into a passion.

A self-confessed “real science geek,” Peters-Morris threw herself into absorbing all of the possible nuances of cheesemaking. Having studied microbiology as an undergrad was, she says, a bonus. And the courses and fieldwork she undertook at universities in Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands and France “practically added up to a second university degree.”

The artisanal cheeses that she had sampled while living in Toronto were her inspiration. One step at at time, she began by making Dutch-style Gouda — first in her kitchen, then in a renovated garage. After Gouda came Quark, then Cheddar and then, “just about everything.” Peters-Morris purchased her first cheese vat from the Netherlands — “a cute little 150-litre vat that produced 16 kg of cheese.“ One of her friends still uses it.

A pivotal moment came when she realized that to “take it up a step” meant investing in larger and more sophisticated equipment. Finding suppliers — particularly Canadian suppliers — proved challenging, even to someone who was experienced in sourcing materials.

“All of a sudden,” she discovered, “I had a network of people around me providing supplies for specialty cheese, and another group wanting these supplies.” They were the impetus to begin selling supplies and conducting workshops for on-farm and home cheesemakers, as well as to writing The Cheesemaker’s Manual.

Her step-by-step methods and the recipes she had developed for small-scale cheesemaking — with an artisan’s flair — found a market. “There is a lot of information out there,” she says, “and it can be difficult for a novice to discern what is legitimate.” That the book has been reprinted five times speaks to its validity.

“When you are in building mode,” Peters-Morris warns, “everything you do has meaning.” photo: Jacqueline Milne

In 2008, Peters-Morris built a manufacturing facility and shop across the road from the family farm. Four years later, she added a warehouse and another addition last year, increasing the size to more than 13,000 square feet. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art aging rooms and climate-control systems. As business increased, so did the size of the vats. Today the two vats in constant use are 10 and 20 times the size of the original, and the company produces 10 types of hard, semi-firm and soft cheeses, mainly from cow’s milk for a total of 30,000 kilos annually.

Since 2012, Wilma Klein-Swormink (also from a Dutch background) has been the cheesemaker, allowing Peters-Morris more time to deal with the business associated with the equipment aspect of the company. Her major challenges include building and maintaining market share, keeping up with industry regulations, and training and keeping staff.

Asked how she accounts for her success, Peters-Morris is quick to credit her family and her farm background. Over the years, their farm grew from 167 to 530 acres. She believes this exceptional growth was due to four factors. Foremost was her father’s exceptional work ethic. Having attended an agricultural school in Holland, where the students worked on farms throughout their studies, he brought his farming know-how to Canada.

Networking was also part of the equation, as her father developed excellent relationships with his neighbours, who, when retiring with no “next generation” to take over, knew he was a trustworthy buyer. Then last but not least, he was a good businessman — quick to make a decision, then equally quick to make each transition evolve. “I seem to have inherited this trait,” she says.

Her mother played a large part in the family’s success, with a thorough grasp of the business aspect. “She was involved with the ag-extension branch and aware of what was going on in the community and beyond. She kept all the information necessary to run the operation. It was a good partnership.” Peters-Morris says. “This became the building block for me and my niche-marketing business.”

She also credits the hands-on, traditional cheesemaking methods she and her team follow. Nothing is automated. Their single-herd supplier — 80 Brown Swiss cows — ensures consistency. And then there is attention to detail throughout the whole process. “It is all the little nuances that contribute to the quality,” she says.

The 10-member, cohesive group is tuned in to the organoleptic characteristics — refer­ring to the taste, smell and texture — that show up in each batch. Cheese is affected by temperature and humidity, a fact they work with, similar to the way a winemaker works with each vintage.

“We see a difference depending on the season and we watch it like a baby,” Peters-Morris says.

Also into the equation go hard work and courage — both of which her employees say their boss has in abundance.

Two years after winning Global Champion in 2013, Glengarry’s Celtic Blue Reserve won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society. This international attention has brought an opportunity for the company to market its cheeses beyond the Canadian border — a challenge given Ontario milk prices.

From Peters-Morris’s perspective, artisan-cheese production and specialty yogurts are the only sectors in dairy-supply management that have shown growth in recent years. Prices are higher than mass-produced cheeses, but consumers recognize the superior quality of artisan cheeses and so more are selling each year. She believes that the artisan-cheese sector, while not large, enables on-farm producers to realize growth.

In the beginning, Peters-Morris had no idea where the business would end up. “I just kept building upon my knowledge, always trying to innovate. When you are in building mode, everything you do has meaning.”

The current facility has the capability of doubling production — a prospect that is definitely in Peters-Morris sight line. Current plans are underway for manufacturing butter and ice cream.

And five years from now?

“I’d like to be working not quite so hard,” she says, with a laugh, quickly following up with, “For me, this is a lovely business. There is deep-rooted satisfaction in tasting really good cheese. I enjoy the contact with the dairy industry, I have a wonderful team and being in a rural area, with other rural businesses, we all support local. It is special.”

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