01/16/2012 10:30 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

The word on curds: Fresh curds joining the snacking market by leaps and bounds

KINCARDINE, Ont. - They're rubbery, they squeak when you bite into them and they're as addictive as peanuts.

Mild-tasting, irregularly shaped cheddar cheese curds will become more widely available in major supermarkets throughout Ontario by the end of February.

Cheese curds are the first cheese solids produced in the cheese-making process.

Pine River Cheese, in Ripley just south of Kincardine, also plans to launch fresh and packaged curds and flavoured cheese specialties to the rest of Canada by the end of this year, says Vijay Kumar, general manager. It is one of the few farmer-owned co-operatives in Ontario.

Flavoured products will include caramelized cheddar cheese, Thai curry cheddar cheese and cheese fudge, a blend of cheddar cheese with chocolate. Thai curry cheddar cheese won first place under innovation products at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair in 2009 while chocolate cheese fudge won third place.

In the works are plans to provide its cheese products as private label brands in grocery stores across the country. This could mean a production increase by almost 50 per cent, he says.

Cheese curds are Pine River's top seller. But curd fans had to do without for 14 months after a fire put the plant out of commission in September 2010.

It was big local news when the first curds were produced in the new plant two months ago. A cheese curd alert was issued online to the waiting curd camp. Signs were posted outside and an announcement was made on local radio.

Just how addictive are cheese curds?

Kids are crazy about them. So are adults.

"I talked to a man who bought a package to take home, but he ate most of them in the car on the way home and had to drive back for more," says Kumar with a laugh.

Pine River, in operation since 1885, is one of a few cheese companies in Canada that makes cheese from 100 per cent Canadian milk.

Most cheese processed today is from modified milk ingredients used to cut costs, he says.

Cheese curds are a virgin market in Ontario and other provinces, says Kumar, who views them as becoming part of the snacking market that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years.

Most cheese companies tend to use curds for further processing, except for Quebec where they have become part of daily life as poutine, the gravy-topped, cheese curd concoction ladled over french fries, he says. Before the fire, Pine River supplied cheese curds to three different cheese companies in Ontario.

The co-op produces 23 varieties and nearly 100,000 kilograms a month when it is in full production.

Kumar expect it will take six to 10 months to get back in full swing with its complete cheese portfolio.

Here are some ideas on how to use cheese curds:

— Use as a crunchy topping for salads and soups.

— Melt in a skillet and top with red pepper jelly, sprinkled nuts or jalapeno peppers.

— Add to omelettes.

— Top nachos with curds and melt under broiler.

— Make your own poutine.

— Pack curds in school and work lunches.