Meet the P.E.I. man who 'came home with a dream' to make cheese curds on the Island

Mathieu Gallant grew up on a dairy farm in St. Timothy, P.E.I., that has been in the family for three generations. That experience has served him well.

"When you grow up on the farm, you play hockey, you do all that fun stuff," said Gallant. 

"You do your lessons from school and then you go help out at the barn, or in the summertime, you never have to worry about going to camp, we'll put you on a tractor instead."

While Gallant wasn't sure if he wanted to become the fourth generation to run the family farm, he knew he wanted to stay in the field. 

In 2003 he studied farm business management in Quebec. It's where he first sampled one of that province's culinary delights. 

"I heard of cheese curds, which I had never tasted before," said Gallant. 

'We were lacking in the Maritimes'

"It was amazing and it's something that I thought that we were lacking in the Maritimes, so I came home with a dream." 

Gallant got a job selling heavy equipment, but still toyed with the idea of starting his own cheese curd factory. It first began to take shape as a hobby.

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"I built my first cheese vat with a friend and kind of figured out how to use it," he said. 

"I had a guy from ADL come in and show me the essentials and how to do the cheese works, and then I did some courses as well." 

'It's not a hobby anymore'

Gallant loved making cheese and realized he had found his calling.  

"At one point, I needed to say, 'It's not a hobby anymore. I need to start doing something with it.'"  

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Gallant needed a house and a factory. So in 2014, he decided to build his cheese plant, with living quarters on the second floor for his young family.

It's a short commute to work. "I go downstairs, I close one door, I open another one and I get in my work boots and we start making cheese," Gallant said.

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The building is located in the seaside Acadian village of Mont-Carmel, overlooking the Northumberland Strait — just a few minutes drive from the family farm where Gallant grew up.

"I couldn't ask for a better situation," he said. "I'm in my community and you know everybody around you and it's a great place to raise kids."

In the summer of 2016, The Island Artisan Cheesehouse began selling its snack-size bags of cheddar cheese curds, called Squeak-ies, to local markets and stores across the province.

'Everybody knows it as squeaky cheese'

As you bite into the fresh curds, they rub against your teeth and make a squeaking noise. 

"So I figured I'd name the product after the sound it makes," Gallant said. "Everybody knows it as squeaky cheese." 

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Gallant only has one employee, friend and neighbour Albert Arsenault. Once or twice a week they get together to make cheese. 

Unlike other cheddar cheeses that age for months, curds are made fresh. "It takes a day to make the cheese and you can eat it at the end of the day," Gallant said.

The process begins when the milk truck arrives with a delivery. And here's where Gallant keeps his hand in the family farm.  

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Johnny Gallant, Mathieu's father, is one of the three farmers supplying milk to the operation. "He takes care of milking the cows and all that fun stuff," Mathieu said. 

"So I thought making cheese, I might be able to make as much money and work half the hours, but so far it's not working out."

'Taking it to an extra level'

Johnny is proud of his son's accomplishment. "It's pretty good. Like it's taking it to an extra level. Especially that this is a multi-generational farm." 

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The freshly delivered milk is tested for pathogens, pasteurized and then cooled down. A culture is added to the milk that separates the cheese from the whey. 

The whey is drained off and the remaining chunks of cheese curds are ground up and then packaged.

Mathieu said he has heard people say you can make cheese with your eyes closed using simple math calculations — but that's "not artisanal," he said. 

"We're doing it by hand, you use your eyes, you use your fingers. There's more love and labour in ours."

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Mathieu does have his eye on mainland markets, but he wants to have more items for sale than just Squeak-ies. 

"As a business owner when you're going to go knock on somebody's door, you don't just want to be selling one product — you want to be selling six or seven different products." 

'Mom has helped out' 

In the meantime, Mathieu wants to focus on growing his P.E.I. business by making his cheese curds available to restaurants in bulk.

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And he hopes his family will continue to support him. "Mom has helped out with the books," he said.

"It's a nice venture. It's fourth generation — the first three were on the farm, this is the first one that's in the cheese plant."

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