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Getting to know Armand Bernard

Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from Cows Creamery on Prince Edward Island… It’s the best vintage cheddar cheese on Earth, so named at the 2015 World Cheese Awards in England. Then, in April 2016 at the Canadian Cheese Awards, Avonlea was named “Cheese of the Year.” A total of five Cows cheeses took first place in their respective categories at the competition. Saltscapes spoke with the man behind the medals, cheese maker Armand Bernard, about growing up on a PEI dairy farm, making do with what you have and appreciating the East Coast lifestyle.

Congratulations on all the awards for your cheese!
I was responsible for helping the cheese grow up, but it’s also the farmers, the people who press the milk, the guys working with me in our cheese cave—it’s not possible without them.

What about you? Where did you grow up?
Near Tignish. We were a small farm, milked 24 cows. I had six brothers and sisters. It was all hands on deck. We had chores in the barn before we went to school and helped with the milking at night. Summers were spent at home working the fields. It was an awesome way to grow up.

Did your family make anything with the milk?
No, but we drank two gallons a day when everybody was home. It was delicious. In the summertime, you’d have the cream rise to the top, and you’d have it on strawberry shortcake.
I got to know milk well.

What do you remember most about those days?
Being outside, being given responsibility early in life, being allowed to try to figure things out on your own. The farm gave me my work ethic, the ability to think creatively. That has carried through to my position now.

How so?
There are not many clothbound cheese makers in Canada. The farm experience of trying to figure things out, making do with what you have and being creative certainly helps in making clothbound cheddar.

For example?
We make 92 wheels of Avonlea at a time. Certain parts of the cave—our cheese cooler—have environments that age the cheese a little differently. Working on the farm, we always had to be aware of how the animals were doing, what their health was like. It’s the same thing in the cave.

So you treat cheese like a living thing.
Those wheels are changing every day. There’s mould on the outside of the cheese, growing on the cloth that makes a protective barrier for the cheese inside. You want that to be as healthy as possible. The cheese will tell you how it’s doing—you just have to stop and listen to it.

Is there something special about PEI that makes for great cheese?
Like wine, cheese has a terroir. The area it’s produced in—whether it’s the nutrients in the soil or the air the cows breathe—has certain things that can’t be replicated. On the island, we’re surrounded by water. We have the red soil. I don’t believe I could take the same recipe to central or western Canada and create the same product.

How important is it that we remember the old ways of making food?
I prefer the simpler foods, and ours is a simpler food. I’ve had older people taste the cheese and say “This reminds me of the cheese I had as a kid.”

You spent some time away from PEI. Why did you return to raise your son?
We wanted him to grow up in the same place we grew up, have the security we have, be able to enjoy the lifestyle.

What makes for the great lifestyle on PEI?
It’s the people, the culture, the seasons—it’s nice to see the snow on a sunny day.

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