Sylvan Star Cheese makes award-winning, mouthwatering, buttery, nutty gouda cheese, crafted from milk from the cheesemakers’ own cows. What’s not to love?
We discovered Sylvan Star when I was drafting an itinerary to get us to our last stop before Jasper National Park. On the way, I wanted to visit Edmonton because I collect capitol buildings. Sylvan Star was perfectly situated as a place to stretch our legs. Sometimes the place you intend to go isn’t the destination you reach. And that can be excellent. However, if I had to do it over again, we’d get going earlier.
The Semi-Accidental Cheese Tourist
Edmonton is one of our five best things to do in Alberta, but we never reached Alberta’s capital. We had gotten a late start that morning and were pressed for time. I expected that we’d go in, buy some cheese, and leave. Not so much. By the time we left Sylvan Star, we’d missed our chance at Edmonton. Oh, well.
Pro Tip: Sylvan Star is on Alberta Highway 11 between Red Deer and Sylvan Lake. It’s designated as the David Thompson Highway. After Sylvan Lake, it reaches Rocky Mountain House (RMH) and the Icefields Parkway’s Saskatchewan Crossing. Both Sylvan Star and RMH are on our list of best day trips from Calgary.
Sylvan Star’s Story Starts In The Netherlands
When I read Sylvan Star’s story, I knew we had to visit. I had to eat their cheese.
Jan and Janneke Schalkwyk moved to Canada in 1995 from The Netherlands, searching for more space and a brighter future. The couple’s son, Jeroen, had moved to Alberta before his parents, and the elder Schalkwyks intended to retire near their family. Jan had made cheese in The Netherlands for 30 years, and he wasn’t going to continue making it. He was done.
But when the elder Schalkwyks moved to Canada, they were dismayed at the cheeses they found. By their standards, the Canadian cheeses didn’t measure up. Jan craved good cheese like the cheese he had made in Europe. With all his experience, he began to craft his own. In 1999, the Schalkwyks ordered cheese-making equipment from The Netherlands and began making their own.
I admire people who decide they can make a better product — and prove it.
Their Dairy Supplies The Milk
Jan didn’t need to find a milk supplier. Jeroen’s dairy farm, Lac La Nonne, is behind Sylvan Star’s facility. Quality milk and cream are the basis for quality cheese. Lac La Nonne’s 240 Holstein cows don’t receive grain. The dairy farm feeds its cows only hay and silage. (Hay is grass that has been cut and dried. Silage is fermented before it’s fed to the cows.) Their diet produces sweet, soft cream, ideal for cheese.
My grandfather raised beef cattle, and they ate corn. I never realized that dairy cows need hay instead.
Turning The Curds And Whey Into Cheese
Little Miss Muffet would enjoy Sylvan Star’s cheesemaking process. As the curd forms in a tank, blades break it into smaller pieces, and the curds release liquid, called whey. The gouda process removes the whey and replaces it with hot water. The washing makes the curds firmer. It also removes enough lactose for the bacteria to eat all of the remainder. The result is a sweet cheese.
Eventually, the curds go into a bucket to be pressed into cheese wheels, then submerged on racks into a brine solution for about two days.
Wax On, Wax Off
The curds and whey process is mostly hidden in the machinery. The attention to detail that produces the quality shows up in the waxing process. Before waxing, the cheese is a white wheel. After waxing, it’s a happy yellow wheel. The staff waxes half of the cheese on one day and flips it over to wax the other side on the next day. The breathable wax enables the whey to drain away as the cheese ages. Mr. Miyagi would approve.
“Lovingly” is the waxing process’s best descriptor. The staff looks like they’re caring for a baby as they wax their cheese.
Racks of waxed cheese age on pine boards. Every so often, staff members flip the cheeses, washing the boards below with a mild chlorine solution to prevent mold.
Mild gouda ages for 2 months, while grizzly gouda ages for 2 years. Grizzly’s texture is like Parmigiano-Reggiano. When grizzly’s done aging, the wheels receive black wax coats that don’t breathe. The staff carefully controls the humidity.
As we learned about the aging process, my mind went back to our Buffalo Trace tour in Frankfort, Kentucky. The distiller and the cheesemaker exhibited the same meticulous care with the same luscious results.
Smokin’ In The Smokehouse
Some cheesemakers add liquid smoke to flavor their smoked cheeses. Not at Sylvan Star. Its cheese sits in a smokehouse surrounded by maple smoke for 12 hours. The difference is obvious. Liquid smoke leaves a chemical aftertaste. Sylvan Star’s has no taste beyond maple wood. Please don’t bury this cheese in a sandwich. It deserves to be savored on its own.
In 2016, Sylvan Star installed a huge solar array on the company’s roof. Four hundred sixty panels produce the cheesemaker’s power. John Schalkwyk, now head of the cheese company, looked forward to saving $2,000 per month in power bills.
I hesitate to recommend how to eat Sylvan Star gouda except on a cheese tray. It’s just that good. But if you insist, the mild and medium gouda make terrific grilled cheese, scalloped potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. If you intend to use it in a sandwich, bake or buy some French or other artisan bread. Regular bread will not do it justice.
Sylvan Star makes numerous flavored gouda varieties, including nettle. I didn’t (and don’t) have the courage to try that flavor. Try the chili pepper flavor instead.
Grizzly gouda is hard and shatters into pieces. You’ll taste notes of caramel and nuts. Crumble it over salad or just savor it with a spoon. Do not wolf it down. Savor it like fine wine or Scotch.
Sylvan Star says their gouda is rated No. 4 in the world, but we received the rating that mattered when we came home. Our friends raved about the cheese. Yours will, too.
So when the cheese tasting takes longer than you expected, and you miss the next thing on your agenda, just stop and savor the cheese. Before you hurry off, sit in the luncheon area and eat your cheese after you shop.
Compare this Canada cheese with cheese from other areas: