Facing off against almost 300 cheeses produced by 76 cheesemakers across Canada, Courtenay’s Natural Pastures Buffalo Paneer won top honours in the Water Buffalo Cheese category and its Smoked Boerenkaas placed as a finalist at this year’s Canadian Cheese awards.
The judges were very impressed with the cheese, according to Natural Pastures’ master cheesemaker Paul Sutter.
“They liked the creamy mild finish and nutty flavour,” he said, of the Indian-style cheese.
Held for the first time this year, the Canadian Cheese Awards were created to recognize and celebrate quality cheeses in the Canadian market.
Competitors must produce their cheese in Canada “using the milk of Canadian cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo – with no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives and no modified milk ingredients,” according to the website.
For its buffalo cheese, Natural Pastures uses milk produced by water buffalo from Courtenay’s McClintock Farms in addition to two other small herds on Vancouver Island.
Compared to cow’s milk, water buffalo milk is pure white, smoother, thicker and tastier. Buffalo milk has significantly more calcium and protein than cow’s milk and, although it has a higher fat content, contains much less cholesterol.
According to Natural Pastures operations manager Doug Smith, their Buffalo Paneer stands out from other paneers because it doesn’t use a lot of additives to bulk up the milk.
“It’s not salted and is made from 100 per cent buffalo milk, with no added powders,” said Smith.
Paneer is an unaged, non-melting, unsalted cheese used in cooking. Commonly used in curries or chopped in cubes and fried with spinach or other vegetables, paneer can also be used in recipes that feature tofu or substituted into familiar recipes such as salmon or crabcakes to produce a more flavourful dish.
“This is a unique cheese for Canada, although it’s a commonly used traditional cheese in other parts of the world,” said Smith.
Natural Pastures Smoked Boerenkaas also made a strong showing at the competition, losing out in the last round to a cheese from Alberta. Sutter described the flavour of the smoked cheese as “a perfect mixture of cheese flavour and smoked flavour, without one cancelling out the other.”
Naturally smoking the cheese creates quite a different flavour than cheese with a flavoured additive that mimics the smoking process, according to Smith.
“Wood chips from trees in different parts of the country create a unique, local flavour in the same way that the grass cows eat creates a unique terroir to the milk,” he said.