By Joanne Sasvari
Head east of Chilliwack and just before you hit the misty Coastal Mountains you’ll run into a little slice of pastoral paradise, where happy cows graze in the meadows and one of North America’s best cheese makers, Debra Amrein-Boyes, is making magic from milk.
Of course, you don’t have to travel all the way to Agassiz to sample her nutty cheddars, savoury blues and creamy bries. That’s because The Farm House Natural Cheeses can be found on just about every fine cheese plate in town. You’ll find it at restaurants that range from Salt Tasting Room to Farmer’s Apprentice to Hawksworth, and in cheese shops including small independents (Benton Brothers, Les Amis du Fromage), farm markets like Lepp Farm Market in Abbotsford and Pomme Natural Market in Coquitlam, and big chains (Whole Foods, Save On Foods, Choices).
Amrein-Boyes herself is a bit of a legend in cheese circles. She is one of only a handful of North American cheese makers to be inducted into the prestigious French Cheese Guild, the Guilde des Fromagers Confrerie de Saint-Uguzon. Her 2009 book, 200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes, was nominated for a World Gourmand Cookbook Award. And her cheeses have scooped up numerous prizes, too, including, most recently, the 2014 Canadian Cheese Awards for Best Aged Cheddar and Best B.C. Cheese for her Clothbound Cheddar.
Not bad for someone who only started making cheese in 2004. Back then, she and her husband George Boyes were running a small family dairy farm in Agassiz and, like so many others, struggling to compete with giant agribusinesses. The solution, she decided, was to offer something of added value. And that something would be cheese.
But it wouldn’t be just any cheese. It would be the best quality cheese possible, made from grass-fed, high-butterfat milk, much of it from heritage Guernsey and Brown Swiss cows, with no additives, preservatives, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, and as little intervention as possible.
“It’s all old-fashioned, natural methods, which is one of the reasons the flavour is so good,” she says.
Right from the beginning, Amrein-Boyes decided she would produce a big range of cheeses, not just a few like most other artisanal cheese makers. “We wanted to introduce cheeses to the Canadian public that people weren’t familiar with,” she says.
And so she makes cheese from goat’s milk and cow’s milk. She makes fresh cheeses and aged ones, soft cheeses and firm ones, cheeses that are mould ripened, ash ripened and threaded with blue veins. She makes some 20 varieties of cheese, including the luxuriously rich Lady Jane named for her daughter, but also offers butter, yogurt, cheese curds, quark, crème fraîche, milk and buttermilk.
Does she have a favourite? “I love the cheddar,” Amrein-Boyes says, “but sometimes you want a glass of Beaujolais and the camembert.”
Now she’s inspired others farmers, such as Golden Ears Cheesecrafters, to produce artisanal cheese in the Fraser Valley; indeed, one of them is her own daughter, who is planning to take over the business with her husband when Amrein-Boyes eventually retires.
Meanwhile, she has cheese to make, and a hungry clientele to keep deliciously well fed.
The Farm House Natural Cheeses is located at 5634 McCallum Road, Agassiz, 1-604-796-8741