The staff at Tiras Dairies in Camrose has a reason to celebrate.
The small plant, which has just eight staff, now ranks up there with the top cheese makers in the country.
Plant manager Olga Payne attended the national gala in Toronto last month and came home with the top prize in the brine-ripened category in the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
“It was so exciting,” said Payne. “In Quebec and Ontario, there are artisanal cheese makers everywhere. It’s good to know that we can be rated highly.
“We competed against places that have been making cheese for years and years, against everyone else in our field who makes this type of cheese.”
It was the first time Tiras Dairies had entered the biannual cheese competition hosted by the Dairy Farmers of Canada.
So what makes its Vlahos (the Greek word for shepherd) cow’s milk feta so special?
“It’s not too dry and had a nicely balanced salt profile,” Julian Bond, a chef and a Canadian Cheese Grand Prix jury member, told The Edmonton Journal.
“It stays intact when you cut it and doesn’t crumble like so many other feta brands. It would hold up well if you put it with watermelon and chopped mint. You won’t be left with mush, but with a nice chunk you can enjoy.”
Feta cheese is basically tasteless when it is first made. The cheese’s cultures and the saltwater brine work together, allowing the cheese to develop its flavour over time.
Standing out in a crowd of top cheese makers isn’t easy — there were 268 cheeses entered in the competition, with 81 selected as finalists. And Tiras Dairies only dates to back in 2001.
The plant, owned by a Camrose-area Hutterite colony since 2008, makes both cow and goat milk cheeses. The recognition from the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix is not the company’s only prize. Its saganaki, a hard ripened Greek cheese, won first prize at Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Fair last November, while its Rocky Mountain quark (similar to sour cream), placed second while its feta placed fourth in the same competition.
All of the wins have helped increase the visibility and awareness of Tiras Dairies’ cheeses.
And it wasn’t the only Albertan cheese company to win national accolades in the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
Sylvan Star Gouda, located near Sylvan Lake, has won numerous Canadian Cheese Grand Prix awards in the past. This year, the company, owned by the Schalkwijk family and established in 1999, won in the aged and smoked gouda categories.