By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
If you’ve been missing the squeaky curds which rolled off the Pine River Cheese assembly line for decades before the plant closed, be ready … they will soon be available again.
“Everyone wants the curds. And they have to squeak,” says Mary Duden, the new plant manager at Pine River Cheese which is now owned by Lucknow District Cooperative and the TG Group headed by Joe Gervasi.
Pine River Cheese was in business for over 130 years before it closed in 2019. The plant had a fire in 2009 and was closed for a year, with managers saying they were never really able to recover from the loss. Lucknow and District Co-op bought the plant in March of 2021 and this new partnership with TG Group is revitalizing the cheese plant and creating the Pine River Mercator Pizzeria featuring top pizza chef, Rodolfo Santo, named Chef of the Year by Canadian Pizza magazine.
During this interview in September, there are still signs by the building asking people not to enter because it seems the community just cannot wait. “People are stopping in all the time,” says Duden, whose background is in quality control with both dairy and cannabis plants. She ran her own food safety consulting business and is a certified Safe Quality Food (SQF) auditor.
She said when Pine River closed three years ago, all the equipment was left in the building. With a major cleaning and some repairs, the plant is ready to go once the final certification from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAFRA) comes in. She expects to be making cheese in October along with 10 employees, three of which were original Pine River employees.
One of those is Darlene Richards, who is the packing supervisor. She had been working in the cannabis industry since the plant closed but once she found out Pine River was opening, she was keen to come back. “I thought it would be a unique venture to get it going again because it was so missed in the community.”
Kristin VanGent agrees. She is the production supervisor and was one of the last employees to walk off the floor in 2019. “My heart was here for almost 10 years so it’s good to come back.”
The new Pine River Cheese will offer the same cheddars and flavoured cheeses it was known for which will be for sale in the Mercato (the Italian word for market). Curds will also be offered, of course. However, the former museum is being repurposed meaning customers can no longer watch the process from the upper viewing area.
Instead, they can choose to sample fresh baked goods, sandwiches and pizza in the restaurant which will be open for breakfast, lunch and supper. Chef Santo was in house during this interview and never stopped trying to feed me. In fact, I left with a giant pala pizza baked with cheese and porcini mushrooms in a thick, airy crust and topped with tomatoes, arugula, prosciutto and other good things. The pizzeria will offer three pizza bases – pala, teglia (thin, with a crispy bottom and soft inside) and Detroit (thicker, but light with caramelized cheese on the edges.
Santo said it takes 72 hours to create his signature pizza doughs, a process he learned while working in L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele Napoli. He remembers as a boy, his uncle declaring they were going for pizza. Driving a Fiat at crazy speeds from Rome to Naples, they arrived at his cousin’s pizza store where 80-90 people were waiting outside.
“The pizza I had that day was not just a pizza. It was a memory I will never forget because it was so damn good,” remembers Santo.
Though he went on to earn a Masters in science, and was schooled in both Canada and Italy, pizza was always his passion. He would return to his cousin’s pizzeria with his uncle, now driving a Mercedes equally as fast, and learned they only made two kinds of pizza – marina and margherita pizza. But they made 3,000 of them per day.
Santo went on to have a career as executive chef for many locations including Excelsior Hotels. He’s not totally sure how he ended up living in Kincardine and helping launch a pizzeria five years into his retirement except that he is good friends with Joe Gervasi and he loves a new project. He also loves the science of making a good dough.
“Over here, dough is not taken very seriously. It is just used as a vessel to put ingredients on,” says Santo. His doughs require water with a lower ph and high hydration so they stay moist for days. Plus, they are filled with air pockets. “It’s a very digestible dough because you do not want to feel bloated after eating a pizza.”
The dough takes 72 hours to make because he uses less yeast, and slows it down to let the enzymes in the flour catch up to reach full maturity and flavour.
Santo is an interesting man and an excellent storyteller besides making pizzas and could probably hold court all day. However, time is needed to tour the plant. Inside, I meet the 10 employees in required white coats and hair nets.
Besides Mary, Darlene and Kristen, the plant has hired: Kristy Mostrey as plant administrator, Saagar Mogon as quality lead, Ty Henry as the maintenance manager and millwright, Paul Bedard and Paul McDonald as the dairy processing specialists, Andrew Scott as a millwright apprentice and Kelly Hanniman as a general labourer.
Once the cheese plant is up and running, work will continue on creating an environmentally-friendly space outside the plant. Pine River Cheese sits on 60 acres of land, of which some is farmed and some is protected with a conservation easement. Wildflowers are being planted to increase biodiversity.
In the meantime, Duden is keen to start making cheese and bring squeaky curds back to Bruce County.◊