Igor Ruffa knew from an early age he was destined for a life in agriculture.
It was hardly an uncommon career path for a child growing up in the rural countryside of Ticino, the southern, Italian-influenced region of Switzerland. What he might not have predicted was that he would end up plying his craft across the Atlantic Ocean, in Lumby of all places.
“When I was in kindergarten, they took us to a barn, and I remember when I went in and saw the cows and the smell of the barn, I just kind of fell in love,” said Ruffa, who operates family-run Bella Stella Cheese with wife Irma and their four children on a 40-acre plot on Trinity Valley Road.
“Since that day, I was always following an old farmer there. I came home (from school) and just went to the farm. He just used to have a few cows, some pigs and chickens and rabbits. My youth, I spend a lot of my time with this guy.”
When Igor was 10, he began spending his summers with farmers up in the Alps, where all the local families sent their dairy cows to graze. It was there that he began learning to make cheese, butter and ricotta (soft, fresh cheese).
“It was not so easy being away from the house, from my mother and family and brothers, but once a month they used to come visit me,” said Igor.
Once he was old enough to be on his own, Igor was unable to secure land to run his own farm. Instead, he completed a four-year apprenticeship with a Swiss telecommunications company. He always kept a herd of about 20 goats at home so he could continue making cheese on the side.
Realizing it would be difficult to follow his dream in Switzerland, he eventually sold his herd and travelled to Canada in 2001. The adventure was cut short as his father became ill, causing him to return home.
Upon his return to Switzerland, Igor first met German-born Irma, and the two began raising goats (and a family) and making cheese in a remote valley in Ticino. They would sell to markets, and tourists adventuring in the valley.
“When I started my own farm in Switzerland, I made cheese just by asking people,” said Igor, who later took a cheese making course to refine his skills and learn more of the science behind the craft.
“Everybody there knows how to make cheese because it’s in the culture.
“But we were trying to build a stable and find land, but for price of the land we’d need subsidy to build. They said ‘maybe you’ll have to wait 10 years before the approval.’ I don’t want to be building my barn when I’m over 50.”
Added Irma: “We looked in Europe, but he always had the dream to immigrate to Canada. He’s not only a farmer, he likes hunting too.”
Upon moving to Canada in August, 2011, the Ruffas began Bella Stella, named after edelweiss (known as stella alpina in Italian), the iconic flower of the Alps.
Their premier cheese is formagella, which is similar to French Brie in appearance, texture and flavour. They also make formaggino (a spreadable cheese, similar in texture to cream cheese), ricotta and mountain cheese. The formaggino is available in plain, garden herb and provencial flavours.
The Ruffas sell Bella Stella Mondays at the Vernon Farmers’ Market in the Schubert Centre, and Saturdays at the Armstrong market (in season). It is also available in Lumby at Lumby Health Foods, The Snac Shac and the Caffé Mazzega.
“Stores here (in Lumby) were so great,” said Irma. “They didn’t even want to know how much profit they would make. They were just so proud that we made it and that we have started.”
They also participated in the inaugural Armstrong Cheese Festival last month at Oddfellows Hall.
When they first moved to Canada, the Ruffas had intended to raise goats and use the milk for their cheese, but they struggled to find financial backing at first, and decided to scale back their business plan.
Instead, they buy milk from a farmer in Lumby who is converting his operation to become organic. Igor noted that more important than organic is the fact that his supplier doesn’t feed silage to his cows, as grass-fed cows produce better milk.
Once they are more established, the Ruffas said they might consider raising a herd, but they’re happy with the current situation.
“Between the kids and making the cheese and finishing the building, we are going to be busy,” said Igor. “We don’t have anybody from our family here, so we have to do everything.
“If the kids show an interest in animals, we’ll be more than happy to get animals again.”
Bella Stella formagella is aged for about three weeks before it sells. Federal regulations require any cheese aged less than 60 days to be made from pasteurized milk to eliminate unwanted bacteria from the product.
Igor and Irma each did their own random taste testing on their formagella – using both raw and pasteurized milk – and were surprised to find they preferred the latter.
“We both chose, for taste and texture, the pasteurized,” said Igor. “It’s more safe and then you get a more constant product. You add exactly the bacteria you want.”
However, Igor said that, traditionally, formagella was made with unpasteurized milk, using very rudimentary methods. He noted that instances of people getting sick from contaminated cheese in Switzerland are virtually nonexistent.
“Formagella originally was aged in a natural cave. It would have picked up every mold that was growing in the cave. Maybe it would have been gray or red or yellow.
“Here, they’re so afraid of bacteria and contamination. “Where I’m coming from, cheese is something that you eat every day. It can be your main meal.”