In Defense of Goat Cheese
by Andrea Caluori of Ashfield, MA
A part of my day job is working at a local non-profit where I plan the public programs for two sites: one is a historic house and the other a nordic ski center. At both places, we have curated wine/cider & cheese tastings that feature local farms from New England and New York. Each time I walk into the local groceries and food co-ops to purchase the cheeses to be highlighted I can’t help but select some of my favorite goat cheeses – that aren’t chevre.
Chevre is a lovely thing. It’s delicious, can be fluffy, spreadable, buttery, a little tangy and a perfect companion to a dollop of honey and a hunk of crusty bread. It’s also what people think of as goat cheese. Every time I do a tasting, I realize how many folks aren’t really acquainted yet with the beauty of aged and bloomy-rind goat cheeses. So of course I like to add in a lovely Crottin or Valencay inspired cheese to the mix. These goat cheeses are generally aged about 2-3 weeks and showcase a natural mold rind that is edible. These are my favorite of goat cheeses. They are also the least familiar.
Many times the question I get is, “is it goaty?” I know what they mean: does it have that little tang that leaves an acidic bite and a slight little aromatic hint of GOAT? Almost always this question is asked with a heavy dose of doubt.
A lot of people answer this question with an affirming “oh no! Only not-so-fresh goat cheese has that goaty flavor. Fresh chevre is buttery and creamy.” And, for the most part, a delicious fresh chevre indicative of proper browse, grass and quality forage will have that creamy flavor. However, goat cheese is goat cheese. It’s not cow’s cheese and it’s not sheep’s cheese, and it’s going to taste like what it is: goat’s milk. So here’s my question back – what is wrong with that?
A quick look at the past: The cheese we know here in the U.S. is mostly inspired by cow milk recipes brought over by the puritans from England. The most common one today is Cheddar. In the 19th century, when the first cheese factory in Oneida, NY was started by Jesse Williams and his son, the two of them were dairy farmers with herds of cows. American cheesemaking is rooted in cow’s milk. Fresh lactic cheeses and lactic-set cheeses developed from goat’s milk, like a Crottin from France or a caprino fiorito from Italy, didn’t really travel over to the United States until the early 20th century when the first strong waves of Italian and French immigrants were starting to arrive stateside. These cheeses were most likely made at home in the kitchen (young, fresh, cheeses do not in the factory make well) – but meanwhile cheddar, gouda and swiss were being made in factories and in large quantities – which means they were consumed in large quantities. And these cheeses were made from… you guessed it… cow’s milk! I could go on and on about how these cheese factories and westward expansion was really the start of the growing gap between people and where their food was grown (as well as the development of big dairy and agriculture) but that’s for another day. The point, however, is that we consider the flavor of cow’s milk as the defining flavor of cheese. But it really isn’t, it’s just the one we’re used to, accustomed to and have developed a palate for. When you start eating different cheeses, the idea of cow’s milk as being the flavor of cheese starts to dissipate quickly. You begin to taste cheeses and realize “this tastes like cow!” or “ah yes, goat!” or “yum…sheep!” Cheese’s flavor starts to reflect where it’s actually from instead of a flavor that has been processed and industrialized for over a century.
So the next time you have a goat’s cheese – such as a chevre, crottin or valencay – enjoy the goaty flavor. It’s unique to this cheese and it’s delicious! It’s one of the defining characteristics of a goat cheese and speaks to a sense of place and care for one of the world’s most fascinating and capricious (ha!) animals.
And on that note – I have a lovely cheese I’d like to introduce you to. One that is currently a standout and has taken a top spot in my mental ranking of cheeses (which often changes). It is the Tymsboro. Produced by Neal’s Yard Dairy in England and made by woman cheesemaker-farmer Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm in Somerset, England – this delightful goat’s milk cheese from a mixed herd is salty, peppery, lemony, bright and has a mineral quality that develops as it ages. And oh yeah – it’s goaty :) I have been eating this cheese all week on its own, with pasta & greens as well as accompanied by raisins as a snack. Something to aspire to. Read Neal’s Yard Dairy’s blog post about Women in Cheese and Mary Holbrook at www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk.