France Benoit lives in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, a town with 20,000 residents. As you can see from the map, it’s in the middle of the Canadian sub-arctic. There are no cows or goats there, so she has to use pasteurized, store-bought milk to make her cheese.
You might think this would be a hardship, but not to France. She is actually selling her cheese at the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market (for which she is a founder). This would, of course, be illegal in almost all of the United States, but not Yellowknife. The government of the Northwest Territories is conducting a pilot program which allows vendors in Yellowknife to sell their products (only at the weekly market) without a license for a commercial kitchen. France told us the government is planning to introduce legislation which would allow residents to use their home kitchens for commercial purposes.
France is a gardener, so she sells vegetables, soft cheeses (cream cheese, feta, ricotta and chevre) and quiches she makes from her cheese. With the pilot program, her kitchen has been designated a Temporary Food Establishment for the last 3 years.
How did you end up living in the sub-arctic?
I came to the Northwest Territories on a student exchange in 1981 with my college and never left really! I went to the university afterwards to study Arctic regions and was coming back up to the North to work in the summer. I lived in Greenland for a year as well. I officially moved to Yellowknife in 1989.
I live off-grid, on a lake, 20 miles from the city limits of Yellowknife. I worked for the Department of Education of the Government of the Northwest Territories for over 10 years and then decided to become a filmmaker, and more recently a market gardener. You can view some of my short films on the art of giving in Yellowknife at http://artofgiving.ca/
How did you get started making cheese?
While visiting family in my home province of Québec in 2013, I decided to take an artisan cheese making course. It had never occurred to me before, it’s not as if I had always longed to take up cheese making, but the thought entered my brain and I have learned to respect those!
Because I had traveled a long distance, I took all three courses over of a series of two week-ends. I learned the basics of soft and hard cheese making, cream cheese, feta, mozzarella, cheddar, etc. When I got back home, I immediately made some mascarpone and assembled the best tiramisu my husband had ever eaten. He was hooked! (France’s husband died a year ago from cancer at age 52.)
Making cheese is part of my trying to be more resilient and re-learning skills we have forgotten collectively. My father told me that my great-grand-father was a cheese maker! There are no cows or goats in Yellowknife, so I must rely entirely on store bought pasteurized milk. I have to fly in every tool and equipment, culture, rennet, etc. I seem to have similar results from all the different companies which sell milk in Yellowknife.
Do you have any contact with other cheese makers?
No, I only get your newsletter.
Why are there no cows or goats?
We are located North of the 60th Parallel so, yes, it is cold, very cold indeed. It can get to minus 40 in the winter. Energy costs are super high and there are no fields or pasture as we are located on sheer bedrock here! There used to be a few animals in the old days, but once a road to Alberta was put in around the 50s or 60s, it stopped. People bought into the dream of buying everything from the grocery store.
Where was the cheese making course you took?
It was in the kitchen of a lady who is a trained cheese maker in a technical school in Quebec. She has been giving these workshops from her home for many years. The courses were meant to be for people wanting to learn how to make cheese for themselves. I am the only student she ever had who gets to sell the cheese she is making.
Why do you grow vegetables in a tipi?
Growing food in a tipi gives you more surface to grow food on than if you were growing food just on the ground…plus it is a symbol of aboriginal people and I live among them here in the Northwest Territories. All the signs on the wall of the guest cabin are sayings that are food related… “Those who sow utopia, harvest reality”…”Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes”…”No farm no food”… Here is a picture of the front of my house and my greenhouse…
Do you have any advice for new cheese makers?
Best advice my instructor gave me, keep trying, the cheese you make may not be the size you want, or the look and feel you were looking for but this is why as humans we learned how to make quiches: so that we use the cheese we make!