Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Mystique of the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (Oka, Quebec)

The Mystique of the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (Oka, Quebec)

By Konomi Fujimiya
The Daily Magi
December 21, 2061


The Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (fr. Abbaye Notre-Dame du Lac), known as the Oka Abbey (fr. Abbaye Cistercienne d'Oka), was a Trappist Cistercian monastery located in Oka, Quebec. The main monastery building is of grey stone and is accompanied by a dozen outbuildings, all of which are situated on a 270 hectare property. 

Following the seizure of the Cistercian Order's Abbaye de Bellefontaine in Bégrolles-en-Mauges, Maine-et-Loire, France by the army of the French Third Republic, in November 1880 the Trappists members of the Order living at the Abbaye were expelled from the country. After receiving an invitation by Father Victor Rousselot of the Grand Seminary of the Sulpician Order in Montreal, Canada, eight Trappists' Monks emigrated to Quebec in April 1881 to establish a new foundation. From their vast Quebec holdings, the Sulpician Order offered the Trappists a parcel of land at their property on the Lake of Two Mountains at Oka, Quebec. (Situated northwest of Montreal in the region of Deux-Montagnes). Naming the property La Trappe after Soligny-la-Trappe in France where the Order had been founded in 1662, the monks established the monastery. Within a few years, through an affiliation with the Université de Montréal, the monastery created an agricultural school under the name of Oka Agricultural Institute, and affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Along with this agricultural school, the Abbey supported itself by producing products such as Oka cheese and Port-Salut cheese.

At its peak, the monastery housed upwards of 200 monks, but by the early 21st century only 28 brothers (half of whom were over 70) remained. Today, the abbey is no longer a working monastery, having been donated by the diminishing number of monks as a non-profit centre to preserve the site's heritage. The Trappists have built a new monastery. They have changed their name to Val Notre-Dame.

Oka cheese was originally manufactured by the Trappist monks, who are located in Oka, Quebec, Canada. The cheese is named after the town. It has a distinct flavour and aroma, and is still manufactured in Oka, although now by a commercial company, the rights having been sold in 1996 by Les Pères Trappistes. It is also manufactured in Holland, Manitoba, by Trappist Monks at their monastery, which is located 8 miles South East of Holland.

It originated in 1893. Since that time, Quebec has become a major producer of Canadian Cheese. Oka cheese has a pungent aroma and soft creamy flavour, sometimes described as nutty and fruity. The cheese, which is made from cow's milk is covered with a copper-orange, hand-washed rind. Its distinct flavour sets it apart from more common cheeses such as colby and cheddar, and does not go through a cheddaring process.

There are four types of Oka cheese, regular, classic, light and providence. 'Regular' Oka can be made from both pasteurized and raw cow's milk. It is a pressed, semi-soft cheese that is surface ripened for some 30 days. The 'Classic' is ripened for an additional month. Aging is done in refrigerated aging cellars. The cheese rounds are placed on cypress slats and the cheeses are periodically turned and hand washed in a weak brine solution. 'Providence' Oka is of a much more creamy and soft texture then either 'Classic' or 'Regular', while 'Light' is similar to 'Regular', but with a lower percentage of fat.

Oka cheese was heavily influenced by the work of the monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (fr. Abbaye Cistercienne d'Oka). Within a few years, through an affiliation with the Université de Montréal, the monastery created an agricultural school. Frequently called the Abbaye Notre-Dame-du-Lac, the Trappist monastery became well known for its Port-Salut cheese, made from a Breton recipe brought with them from France.

Port Salut is a semi-soft pasteurised cow's milk cheese from Pays de la Loire, France, with a distinctive orange crust and a mild flavour. The cheese is produced in disks approximately 23 cm (9 inches) in diameter, weighing approximately 2 kg (4.4 lb). Though Port Salut has a mild flavour, it sometimes has a strong smell because it is a mature cheese. The smell increases the longer the cheese is kept — this however does not affect its flavour. It can be refrigerated and is best eaten within two weeks of opening.

The cheese was developed by Trappist monks during the 19th century at Port-du-Salut Abbey in Entrammes. The monks, many of whom had left France to escape persecution during the French revolution of 1789, learned cheese-making skills as a means of survival and brought those skills back with them upon their return in 1815. The name of their society, "Société Anonyme des Fermiers Réunis" (S.A.F.R.), later became their registered trademark, and is still printed on wheels of Port Salut cheese distributed today.

In 1873, the head of the abbey came to an agreement with a Parisian cheese-seller granting exclusive rights of distribution, and the cheese soon became popular. The abbey sought trade protection, and eventually (in 1959), sold the rights to a major creamery. The cheese is now produced in a factory; the characteristic smooth crust the result of a plastic-coated wrapper. The crust is edible, but is made of wax and detracts from the flavour of the cheese. Handmade Port Salut cheese or "Entrammes" cheese is still produced by various monasteries throughout the French countryside.

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