Herschel Hills: Saskatoon's artisan cheese house

Creativity and science blooms at the local shop

Herschel Hills halloumi cheese

Some 70 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon, complete with cresting hills presiding over the dipping valleys of Eagle Creek, is a record keeper of artifacts caught and preserved in the sands of time: Aboriginal petroglyphs found in the area, and plesiosaur fossils discovered in a nearby coal mine ravine. The little village of Herschel, with a population of fewer than 50, embodies the purity and charm of Saskatchewan and is the inspiration and name behind Herschel Hills’ artisan cheese. While it is actually produced in Saskatoon, it takes its name from the hills of Herschel, which, and as owner Sharon McDaniel says, cry out for a cheese cave.

McDaniel started the company a few years ago after making her first cheese, a mascarpone. She was working a government job, but once she saw how well that cheese worked out, she was hooked, and started taking cheese-making courses on her holidays each year. Now she works both jobs full time.

“It’s about having creativity,” McDaniel explains. “There’s some science to it, but there’s creativity too. You make something, hide it away, and it takes on a life of its own.”

There’s a three-day production cycle that yields six to eight cheeses, about 800 litres each. But it’s not an easy gig -- cheese making may have some semblance of recipe-following to it, but there are also highly unstable variables. Changing the feed of the animal that the milk comes from or even the temperature of the room where the cheese is made can impact the quality and flavour of the final product. And it’s not exactly cheap.

“To operate on this level,” says McDaniel, “it’s expensive. Testing [the bacterial levels in the milk to make sure they are optimal] costs as much as the milk itself.”

The Herschel Hills cheese sampled was magnificent; flavourful and real, unlike the rubbery processed cheese from the typical grocery store. The gruyere had a sharp but buttery flavour, cheese crystals embedded within (whitish, solid crystalline granules in the cheese that are seen as a defect in something like commercial cheddar, but are desirable here; it’s another indication that you’re eating real cheese and not processed goods). In order to fine-tune such flavourful cheese, McDaniel relies on her senses.

“I have my mother’s nose,” she jokes. “It’s really handy.”

Matched with caramelized onions and pancetta on a homemade pizza, the goat cheese's savoury nature worked in concert with the cured meat to contrast the sweet onions.

Look for McDaniel and her products at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, where she loves to chat cheese with anyone that has questions or cooking ideas. Herschel Hills cheese can also be found at a few restaurants in Saskatoon, like Truffles and The Bassment; and its excellent halloumi can be ordered at Nosh on Broadway.