By Lorrie Baumann
In his fourth season as an artisan cheesemaker, Jeff Fenwick, cheesemaker at Back Forty Artisan Cheese in Lanark, Ontario, doesn’t regret leaving his job as director of admissions at a college in downtown Hamilton. His wife Jenna simply brought her own art and design business with her when they made the move, and although she’s streamlined the retail channels for her line of women’s bags and accessories to accommodate her new rural location, her studio still thrives. “We turned a barn into her studio here when we moved,” Jeff says. “She has a big Etsy store.”
Jeff and Jenna were living and working in Hamilton when his job at the college began to feel a little stale. The couple had always been interested in food, cooking and entertaining, and they’d started growing some of their vegetables. Jeff had gotten interested in fermenting and was making his own beer and cider. “I had made the odd batch of yogurt, but no advanced cheese making,” he says.
Jeff’s job required long hours at the college, and the two of them began to regret how little time they were spending together, too. All those yearnings prompted Jeff to start searching for a chance to leave his office job for a business related to food. They thought of opening a small cafe, perhaps. “While we were researching, this cheese business came up for sale. It’s a beautiful area, and we had some family in the area, and it turned out to be a great fit for us,” Jeff says. “A big part of moving out here was to spend more time together. The college job was very demanding. We weren’t seeing each other a whole lot.”
In business since late 1999 or early 2000, Back Forty Artisan Cheese was one of the first in Ontario to make raw sheep’s milk cheeses. Its former owner was ready to leave it behind but he wanted to leave the business in good hands, so he stayed involved long enough to teach Jeff how to make cheese from his recipes. “I had to learn a whole new art,” Jeff says. “I used his recipes, did some trial and error, made some mistakes. It took a good year to settle into it.”
Milking the sheep is outsourced to a nearby farm where the farmer has more livestock experience.“He has a flock of 200 sheep this year,” Jeff says. “He does what he does best and gives us high-quality milk that we can make good cheese with.”
Jenna handles the marketing and website management for the business, and today the cheese is being sold at specialty cheese shops and upscale grocers all over Ontario, with the majority going to the eastern half of the province, including Ottawa and some farmers markets and small retailers in Toronto. They just added the farmers market in Kingston to their distribution network.
Back Forty Artisan Cheeses makes four products in its regular line. Flower Station is a traditional-style feta. Highland Blue is a natural rind blue cheese that’s flavorful but a little smoother than most blue cheeses, with some extra butteriness from the sheep’s milk. “We’ve had a lot of success with that one,” Jeff says.
Bonnechere is a semifirm cheese, unique because it’s influenced by a Basque recipe. Its rind is flame-torched for a mahogany exterior and a hint of smokiness that gives it an interesting flavor on the rind around a body that’s tangy and a little fruity. It’s aged from three months to a year or more. Finally, Madawaska, a bloomy rind raw milk cheese that’s tricky to make. “It ripens from the outside in, so you get that ripeness right under the rind, with a little firmer body to it near the center,” Jeff says. “Madawaska is frequently back-ordered due to the high demand for this unique cheese and the fact that we can produce only limited quantities.”
Now that Jeff has settled into his new life, he’s growing it too. The couple just bought a new farm in North Frontenac, where they’re building a new facility that they expect to have in operation this summer.
For further information, visit www.artisancheese.ca. For more information about Jenna Fenwick’s line of screen-printed textile products, visit jennarose.ca.