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David Wood's Salt Spring Island Cheese Odyssey

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By Malcolm Jolley

In the early 1990s David Wood left Toronto, where his namesake store set a new standard for the city's gourmet shops, for the rugged countryside of BC's Salt Spring Island. Since making the move his Salt Spring Island Cheese Co. cheeses have become de rigueur for any serious Vancouver restaurant's cheese plate and celebrated throughout Canada. As Wood prepares to receive federal inspection and start selling outside of BC, Gremolata's Malcolm Jolley caught up with the cheesemaker to find out how it all came about.

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You learn something new everyday, and very quickly into my recent conversation with BC cheesemaker extraordinaire, David Wood, I was learning a lot about the recent history of sheep breeding in Canada. It all had come about, when I asked him why he chose to make cheese from goat's milk, more than a decade ago, when he left the high-flying world of Toronto retailing for the bucolic beauty of Salt Spring Island. Much has been written on why Wood chose a new life: principally to engage in an occupation that would allow him to spend more time with his (then young) family. As the publisher of a "Gourmet Media" journal, I thought I'd skip the lifestyle/profile stuff plunge right into the process of making celebrated cheese. Wood seized the question, first correcting me by explaining that he actually started by making sheep's cheese.

When Wood and his wife, Nancy, first made it out to Salt Spring, they knew they wanted to make cheese and a culmination of regulations and lore led them, first to sheep's milk. Cow's milk falls under the supervision of dairy boards in Canada, which means lots of red tape, he explained. For some reason sheep's and goat's milk aren't classified as "milk" for these purposes and so are easier to make cheese with. (I had heard this from other producers in Ontario and Quebec, too - if you look around a fancy dairy case of Canadian cheese, you'll notice a lot more farmhouse sheep's and goat's milk products.) When it was time to choose between the two, Wood remembered someone saying, "the only thing worse than goats, are the people who keep them." Thus the first cheeses were from sheep.

At the time, while there were a few goat cheese operations in Canada, there were far fewer sheep's milk cheesemakers. Wood essentially had to learn the craft himself. To complicate things, he couldn't source any Friesian sheep, whose rich milk make European styles of cheese. Because of "scrapie", the pre-cursor of mad cow disease, Friesian stock had not been imported into Canada for years. But all was not lost. In the 1960s and 70s, Wood explained, government researchers had developed a "Canadian Super Sheep": the Arcott. Wood laughed that even though the breed sounds like it comes from some idyllic French pasture, it name really stands for "Agriculture Research Centre in Ottawa." The super sheep included Friesian stock and Wood discovered that while he couldn't import an actual Friesian, he could import their semen, so through breeding his flock became virtual Friesian, and he could rely on their milk.

Still, he told me, it wasn't easy. "Making cheese is like making wine," he went on, "the basics are simple, but the fine points are very tricky. When we started we could make cheese that looked quite good, but tasted awful." Far from the glory days of cheese, today, at the time they were no books he or Nancy could find, so it was all trial and error and experiments in the kitchen. It wasn't until he and Nancy took a sheep milling trip (yes, there is such a thing) to Corsica where they were able to witness centuries old methods of production, that they became confident enough to offer their wares for sale. "It took six years to sell the first piece of cheese."

But they couldn't make enough cheese in their first cheesery to run a viable operation, so Wood was delighted when he discovered an abandoned cheese making facility on nearby Gabriola Island. A Quebecois couple had pioneered a cheese making operation there in the 1980s, but they hadn't been able to make a go of it, abandoned their project and gone off to do other things. The plant had sat there for seven years, but was in excellent shape, so Wood and his wife bought the whole thing, down to the light bulbs, and painstakingly dismantled it, brought it over piece by piece in a cube van, and spent over a year putting it back together.

As Wood told me these stories of his early days he is both wistful and quite pragmatic. When I ask him what advice he would give to any other city slicker interested in making cheese or getting into a similar venture, he's straightforward and says he would strongly advise them to spend a lot of time talking to people already doing it. He goes on, "It looks romantic, but people need to understand all things and work needed to make it go. They can get suckered and not see the dark underside of hidden costs, regulations and other obstacles."

I had got a pretty good idea about how he started his venture, but I was still perplexed. "If you started with only sheep's milk cheese," I asked, "how come you're famous for your goats?" Wood laughed and explained, "For the first few years, when people asked me, "how's the cheese business"? I would answer, "it's not a business, it's a way of life." But that was a lie, it really is a business." As Wood got better and better at making cheese he started to look at his whole operation and saw that goat's were more profitable and had stronger sales. "We quit sheep," he says matter-of-factly. "We had been in business for several years, increased our volume to the point of being right at capacity. So we were making lots of cheese, but no money." In the end the goats won, and chevre lovers have been happy for it ever since.

Wood's attitude may have become a little more hardnosed, but the quality of his cheese and his ethos are firmly rooted in Salt Spring Island's hand-crafted sensibility. For instance, Wood happily overpays for his milk, shelling out twice the market rate. He explained that he is willing to pay this premium to guarantee the standard treatment of the animals, and to maintain stability with his suppliers. "We have the best farmers in BC, and they know they can survive by selling to us."

Wood's operation is doing well. They've just expanded their plant to make three times the amount of cheese. The greater scale means that they can get federal inspection and start shipping their cheeses to retailers outside of BC. Wood thinks his cheese could be in Toronto display cases by the end of the year.

I asked him what he thought about today's foodie culture. While he enjoys the fact that consumers have found a taste for artisanal cheeses, he wonders how long the big food companies will let small producers take away their market share. Then, he laughed once more and said, "Cheese is so hot. People talk about it like it was an illegal drug! It's totally strange to me. But, then my original thought was that cheese in North America might become like wine, and supposed it has." He also warns about taking cheese too seriously: "There's a lot of nonsense about terroir - it can get a little precious. Differences in flavour between one place and another would be very difficult for all but the finest palate to detect." Most of that, he thinks, is just marketing and acknowledges that he's been lucky to have got lots of good press.

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