Poplar Grove Cheese: Penticton cheesemaker shares her creative process

Creativity behind cheese

"Okanagan Inspired" is a new weekly series of articles offering a peek into the stories and inspirations of Pentictonites who hold creative roles in the community.

Poplar Grove Cheese originated along the Naramata bench, almost 15 years ago in 2007, however it is a relatively new venture to new owner and cheesemaker, Jennifer Robinson.

Robinson and her husband purchased the shop in July 2020, understanding the challenges they would face but so far, the journey has been worth it.

Originally from Chilliwack, Robinson spent several years living in Saskatchewan before moving to Penticton six years ago. Her and her husband had taken a trip backpacking in Mexico for 6 months and upon returning to Regina, decided they wanted a change.

They stumbled upon Penticton quite randomly during a visit and decided to move out jobless and to an apartment they had never seen.

“I really love the community here first and foremost,” she explains. “We originally moved in the winter and we felt a little unsure originally with how quiet it was. But now we’ve been here longer and I’ve really learned to appreciate all of the seasons here. I love the summer bustle and the winters are so quiet and beautiful.”

She loves being so close to the mountains and spends plenty of time biking and kayaking.

As for becoming a cheesemaker? She fell into it accidentally. She had worked at Guerard’s Fine Furniture as an interior decorator but felt ready for a change.

Robinson wanted to start her own business, preferably something artistic and creative. When she learned that Gitta, the founder of Poplar Grove Cheese, was looking for an assistant cheesemaker, she went for it.

She learned that Gitta was planning on selling the business and even though she felt a bit unsure, it came down at the end of the day to either owning a house or owning a business. She decided that owning a small piece of the iconic Naramata bench was an opportunity she didn’t want to miss out on and she went for it.

At Poplar Grove Cheese, she currently makes four different styles of soft cheeses, including an Okanagan Double Cream Camembert, Harvest Moon Washed Rind, Naramata Bench Blue and their most popular and well known cheese, the Tiger Blue.

"For each style the process is very different and very specific,” Robinson explains. “Each batch is different. No two are ever the same. The one consistent thing is that they are all made with love and care though. The Harvest Moon and Camembert are somewhat similar, but the Harvest Moon is quite soft and can be temperamental, the Camembert is easier. Tiger Blue is a labour of love. A LOT goes into it.”

Even if you aren’t a blue cheese person typically, the Tiger Blue is a must try. “Most blue cheese is very dry. The Tiger Blue is creamier and a bit saltier” she says.

In addition, Poplar Grove Cheese is currently collaborating with Tickleberries. They have worked together to create a new ice cream flavour featuring a vanilla base, pear puree, walnuts and Tiger Blue cheese.

Robinson’s personal favourite cheese is Tiger Blue because “I see how it is made and how much love and work goes into it. Each batch has been a bit of a challenge really. It is very sensitive but has given me a great lesson in patience, and it inspires me to continue trying to improve. It is hard work, but it is work that is worth it. A year ago, I didn’t have the patience for it. It’s something I’ve learned and improved on.”

Although their operation is quite small, in the fall, she hopes to be able to try her hand at making some fresh cheeses to serve in local restaurants, like Mozzarella, Ricotta and Cream cheese.

Buying a business during a pandemic created a challenge for them and she says “getting through the last year was a feat for sure, but I feel really proud of being able to learn about the cheese we make, and for learning so much about the business. The art of cheesemaking is very artful and difficult, but the art of the process and taking the time to learn makes me feel very accomplished.”

Robinsons future goals are to continue trying to make Poplar Grove Cheese the best it can be.

“Our motto going forward is to try to promote and work together as a community and to collaborate and support each other. I don’t want to expand, but there are ways to be creative and think outside the box,” she says. She hopes to bring some amazing new product to the shop to support fellow local and Canadian businesses.

For people who may want to learn more or get involved in the cheese industry, Robinson recommends following the same advice her uncle gave her before passing away from Huntington's disease.

“Just go for it! If you are interested, I think that advice works for everything. Cheesemaking is a tight knit community with fewer classes and ways to learn due to Covid, but just start slowly and reach out to the community. The doors are open in the world, so just go for it.”

She also mentions, “I'd be happy to help anyone that would want to reach out. Guidance is a big factor.”

While cheesemaking, they listen to all kinds of music, however, when they are finished, the music doesn’t stop. “We actually leave music on for the cheese. Sometimes country, sometimes classical or rock. I read an article about a man in Italy who has amazing cheese and always plays music for it too and decided to try," she says, laughing.

“I think the cheese likes Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve. It’s one of my favourites and I think the cheese would like the instrumentals.”

Poplar Grove Cheese is currently open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and will be open seven

days a week in May to try some of Robinson's delicious and unique creations.

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