Spring is naturally the season of new beginnings, and during these warm days rife with optimism, I like to think about all the wonderful things this season kicks off. Spring harvest, baseball, the first days of the rest of a college graduate's life, and of course the effective start of cheese season.
In this third installment of Cheese 101 (we've already covered blues and Alpines), we take a detailed look at some of the best cheeses for spring—the aged goat cheeses—largely inspired by the "chèvres" of France's Loire Valley.
Chèvre Just Means 'Goat'
In America, fresh goat cheese has come to be called "chèvre," which just means "goat" in English. So the term doesn't describe a specific kind of cheese but rather a whole class of cheeses, all made from goat's milk. (This is similar to the Italian term "pecorino," which just means "sheep cheese.") So when you want to refer to fresh goat cheese, you could say "fresh chèvre," but "chèvre" on its own is a pretty general term.
Why Is Cheese Season During the Spring?
Now is the time when dairy farmers begin to give their animals access to fresh, young, green pasture full of wildflowers and pollen (if, of course, they have access to pasture to begin with). And while many farmers milk their herd throughout the winter months, dairy goats in particular tend to breed and freshen more seasonally than cows, and begin producing their milk in the late winter and early spring.
So now is not the time to savor big, hearty cheeses that take months to age. Rather, spring is the season of cheeses that age for two to six weeks. And of those cheeses, easily the most delicious and exciting are the aged goat cheeses.
Why Aged? Why Not Fresh?
Well, OK, now is a great time to have fresh goat cheese as well. Lots of farms are now experimenting with these kinds of cheeses, adding all different kinds of herbs, spices, honeys, even edible flowers to spruce them up.
But if you want to eat cheese that's a little more adventurous, that's got a lot more depth of flavor, you'll want to get some goat cheese that's been aged for several weeks. These cheeses begin to develop mold-ripened rinds that may be snow-white and fuzzy, or grayish and wrinkled, reminiscent of a human brain. During aging, the molds break down the various components of the cheese (fats and proteins) and begin to soften the texture and create aromatics that greatly enhance the flavor of the cheese.
What Should I Look For?
The Loire Valley goat cheeses are the standard bearers of the category. Valençay is perhaps the most famous, with its inimitable flattened-pyramid form. Rumor has it that the cheese was originally pointy, but upon returning from a ruinous campaign in Egypt, Napoléon saw the cheese and swiped the top off with his sword.
Then there's Chabichou du Poitou, a beautifully-textured goat cheese that often has tart citrusy notes. Don't forget Sainte-Maure, throughout whose middle runs a single straw that helps to keep the cheese together, and the puck-shaped Crottin de Chavignol, named after dung of all things.
Here in America, there are lots of great aged goat cheese producers nowadays. Vermont Butter and Cheese recently ventured into the realm of aged goat cheeses with their delicious Bijou, Bonne Bouche and Coupole varieties.
And to Drink?
It's no coincidence that these cheeses pair extraordinarily well with the flinty, fruity white wines of the Loire Valley. Sancèrre is a great companion, as is Vouvray. Whatever beverage you choose, it should be subtle and light, as aged goat cheeses can be on the delicate side as well, easily overwhelmed by a bold, rich wine.
Whatever you do, head out to your nearest cheesemonger right now and get your hands on some of these cheeses. There's no better time of the year to experience them.