I’m excited to be tasting and reviewing Oka cheese today. Oka is perhaps the first non-Industrial cheese I ever tasted-ironically, it’s now an industrial cheese-but back in the 1980’s a Québécois friend of ours dropped by with a wedge of cheese unlike anything we had ever seen or smelled before. It wasn’t orange, or marbled and it didn’t come in a pre-shrunk plastic wrap. When we opened it up we reeled from the pungent stench. What in the world was this? I was terrified of the cheese, but my mother dived in and proclaimed it to be the “feet of the Gods.” And so her love of Oka began, and my interest in cheese piqued.
Oka cheese is named after the village of Oka in Quebec, also known for the “Oka crisis,” which luckily, had nothing to do with cheese. The cheese was originally made in this village in 1893 and was a Canadian version of “Port Salut” cheese, a French washed rind cheese. Monks originally from Port Salut established a monastery in La Trappe, (Trappist monks)near the village of Oka and started making their own cheese, and thus- Oka was created. Oka and Port Salut are yet more examples of so-called “monastic cheeses,” meaning washed rind cheeses made traditionally by monks. What’s up with monks and washed rind cheeses? I keep running into this connection-if anyone knows, please let me in on the secret!
Alas, the Trappist monks sold the rights to Oka in 1996 to a commercial company-Agropur. The Trappist monks got out of the cheese business, but I do hope they made a tidy profit. It’s a little sad for me, as I was under the impression that this was still a monk-made cheese, and I don’t know why I should care, but I do. It’s somehow not as romantic this way-not that there is anything overly romantic about monks making cheese, I concur.
Thus, the rights to Oka is now owned by the Agropur company, which is a fascinating company in it own right. This Canadian owned dairy co-operative was founded in 1938 and has 5,000 employees and 27 plants and offices in Canada, the US and Argentina. Agropur doesn’t just own Oka, it also produces Yoplait and Island farms, amongst others. There are 3,500 dairy farmers in the Agropur family making it the largest dairy cooperative in the country.
Oka is now industrially produced. It can be either raw or pasteurized, and my little label doesn’t state which, so I’m not sure. If it matters, ask your cheese monger. It’s still a washed rind cheese, and made in the same manner as before, except no monks are involved. Sigh. After the cheese is pressed it is washed with brine to encourage the ripening of the rind during affinage-the cheese is at least one month old when ripe, although the “classic” version is ripened 2 months. Agropur offers 6 types of Oka cheese: creme, raclettte, light, mushroom, classique, and l’artisan. I don’t know which type of have as my label called it “Signature” so it’s a bit of a mystery.
My little wedge of somewhat mysterious Oka has been warming up beside me on my desk as I write. It’s a pale yellow, speckled with holes (eyes) and it has an orange washed rind with a little white mould and it is ever so slightly sticky. The cheese is relatively firm and tensile, it’s not a wet cheese. The smell is actually mild, which surprises me-my original memory of Oka was that it reeked, but this cheese is pretty chilled out for a washed rind. Mind you, it was my first experience ever with washed rind, so maybe I’m jaded now-or maybe the monks put something in their rind back in the 1980s that’s missing here. Who knows.
Mmmmmm. Yes, I do still like this cheese. It’s actually freaking fantastic. The flavour is complex and delicious-intense, but not overly raunchy. It does taste like the feet of the Gods-mom was right! It’s kind of foul, and kind of fabulous. It does have a hint of mould, especially if you include eating the rind-which you must-and a faint hint of ammonia. But it all really works. The texture is also really great. It’s much more tensile than the other washed rinds-meaning it has a chew to it-it’s not floppy or wet or slimy, this cheese could keep it together on a sandwich. You know, I actually wasn’t prepared to like this Oka, not being made by monks anymore, but Agropur has done a great job here. It’s the cheese I remember and definitely a keeper. Damn, it’s all gone. Got to get some more.