Monthly Archives: February 2013

Pennies and Cheese

There were a couple of stories in the news here that piqued our writing fingers.  One, is the end of the one cent piece as circulated coinage in Canada.  Since 1858 the one cent coin has endured its’ lot in jars, wedged under table legs, rattling around in the car, or simply being used as a counter for various games.  As of February 4th, Banks are no longer sending out rolls of pennies as part of the coin order for retail outlets.  They stopped minting the one cent piece last year and now they will be falling from circulation. 

Electronic transactions will still be totalled to the cent, but cash transactions will be rounded up, or down to the nearest five cents when it comes to getting your change.  The reason is simple enough, the government saves $11 million dollars by no longer producing the smallest coin of the realm.  Over the next few decades you will hear the old codgers bemoaning the penny.  I will add a small postscript now and leave it to future generations to colour in the rest of it.

It used to be that empty glass pop bottles had a two cent deposit.  As a kid we would collect them from construction sites around the neighbourhood.  Pure Spring bottles were my favourite, as were the voluptuous green glass Gini bottles.  To replicate the taste of Gini, wrap a fresh lemon around a brick and smash yourself in the mouth a couple of times.  Only grown-ups drank Gini, usually mixed with gin, over ice in the summer; for us it was root beer or the red Swiss Cream soda. 

With our two, or three empty pop bottles, we would go to either the Elmvale or Arch Street convenience store.  There, arrayed for our pleasure, was penny candy.  Blackballs were usually the target, two for one cent, which meant with a good days’ hunting for empties, you could have four, or even six blackballs to stain your mouth the colour of coal. 

None of this was done under parental supervision, or organized in any way by adults.  No special equipment was required, nor lessons from a Romanian semi-pro tutor.  There were no medals for participation.  It was our introduction to capitalism.  If you had a good day, you got more.  If you didn’t find any, you got bupkis and relied on the good graces of a friend to give you a blackball or a sour baby.  You learned the value of a penny, which to a six year old, is almost inestimable, as it meant the freedom to choose what kind of candy you would buy with your own money, from the sweat of your efforts.

The St. Albert Cheese Cooperative has been making cheese since 1894.  It was one of the first farmer-based co-ops, the farmers owning the cows and providing the milk to the dairy to make cheese.  St. Albert’s has thrived all these years as a local co-op through globalization, quotas, marketing boards and other economic disasters, as their cheese is exemplary.  It was exemplary because it was made from milk from cows around St. Albert, about a 40 minute drive east of Ottawa.  Every day trucks would arrive with the milk and every day they would create the most astounding things from it. 

Cheese is not a complicated product to make adequately.  Mega corporations like Kraft or Saputo make tons of it daily, packaging it to serve the common tastes of the common man with something perfectly adequate.  St. Albert Cheese was never adequate.  It was always special. 

For those of you who have never had cheese curds, the backstory is important.  After milk is coagulated in a cheese tank with heat, colouring, salt and rennet, the lumps of protein coalesce into the curly globs of solidified protein called curds and the liquid left over, called whey. 

Yes, like Little Miss Muffet.  Curds and whey are basically cottage cheese, with the solids and the liquids together.  After cheddaring, if you drain off the whey, you are left with curds, that are eventually pressed into blocks and become cheese.  Apply a bit of heat and you get the curds to melt together to form that lump of cheese you can call Cracker Barrel.  Perfectly acceptable as a foodstuff.  Age it for a while and you can even get the foodies to go all gushy about your stuff.

Where the magic lives is in the curds.  If you scoop out bags full of the curds, they are still warm and salty from cheese-making with a little bit of whey left over, clinging determinedly to the solids.  Curds squeak against your teeth when you bite them and they have to be fresh, as in made that morning, or perhaps yesterday.  Fresh and never refrigerated either.  Cold kills the squeakiness and crushes the salty-whey tang of real, fresh, warmish curds fresh from the vat.

You can buy perfectly acceptable cheese curds, but they have been almost always refrigerated, made last August by some agro-conglomerate owned by a Brazilian oligarch who wouldn’t know cheese from a freighter of Vanadium ore.  They are unacceptable, even in Wisconsin, unless you go directly to the factory and get them the day they are made, if they are allowed to sell them.  In Ontario, you can sell cheese curds, unrefrigerated, as nature intended. 

In the past, when there were a few small cheese factories around Ottawa in beautiful rural areas, we would load up in various cars and drive, ostensibly to obtain curds.  One particular Cheese Run, many years ago involved a 5.0/5-speed Mustang, a V-6 Fiero and a 2.3 liter Dodge Lancer followed by a vintage ‘68 Lotus Elan breaking a large number of sections of the Highway Traffic Act between Ottawa and Plum Hollow, Ontario.  I neglected to mention earlier that the high concept of the Cheese Run involved back roads and as much velocity as you dared, the objective being get there fast and drive back at a leisurely pace.  The parking lot of the Plum Hollow Cheese Factory was occasionally the scene of other customers complaining about the smell of hot brakes mixed with the feral reek of clutches, engines and tires pushed beyond their design limits, as the Cheese Runners scanned the local roads for any sign of the police.   

To this day we get the hankering from time to time for the exquisite squeak of curds and drive at a leisurely pace to St. Albert.  Yes, you can buy their products in grocery stores.  Not but five blocks from here is a Metro supermarket that sells their wares, but it isn’t quite the same as going to the cheese factory and getting them at the company store, not 30 feet from where they were created earlier that day.              

Unfortunately on Sunday morning a fire broke out and burned the whole operation to the ground.  St. Albert’s has promised to rebuild and will shift their operations to another plant near Mirabel, Quebec in the interim.  There will still be cheese curds in our household, except now, we’ll have to drive to hell and gone to get them.