As the lilies and irises poke up through the dirt to signal spring, we'll be taking a cue from the French and eagerly digging into the first goat cheeses of the season. It's a general rule that artisan cheese is at its best when made with spring milk—after a winter diet of dry hay and feed, the flush of nutritious tender grass, herbs, and wildflowers helps dairy animals to produce richer milk, with more depth of flavor. But even unpastured goats, fed that dry winter diet year-round, produce their fattiest milk in the earliest weeks of nursing, after giving birth in the spring.
A goat produces far less milk than a cow—only six to eight pounds per day, compared to a cow's whopping 120—so most farmstead goat cheese is made in small batches. Since these wheels are small, they don't need much time to mature; even the funkiest ripened chèvre spends only a few weeks to a month in the aging cave. Both fresh and soft-ripened goat cheeses made with spring milk are readily available from mid-spring through early summer.
If you're interested in celebrating chèvre season, buy or bake a crusty loaf of bread, chill down some Sauvignon Blanc or rosé, and pick up a few of the tangy cheeses listed below.
Think of Petit Billy as the gateway goat. While it was originally produced in the small Loire town of Billy, most Petit Billy available today comes from the company of the same name, based in Noyal-sur-Vilaine, Brittany. It's one of the milder chèvres out there, with none of the bland pastiness characteristic of those Cryovacked logs in the grocery store.
The delicate white puck is typically sold wrapped in an artificial chestnut leaf. Its bright, lemony flavor and fresh, lactic aroma make Petit Billy an ideal breakfast or dessert cheese when paired with fresh fruit and honey, and its mousse-like texture spreads beautifully over cake or toast. If you're making a cheesecake or Danish, try swapping ricotta or cream cheese for this light and fluffy chèvre, or plop it by the spoonful onto a pizza topped with spring vegetables.
St. Johnsville From Cochran Farm 1790
Gwen and Patrick Apfel met in business school and worked in the tech industry before moving to France, where their appreciation of goat cheese evolved into a shared passion. In 2012, they enrolled in a cheese-making training program in Burgundy, and two years later, they started their fledgling cheese business in St. Johnsville, New York. Gwen and Patrick buy all their Alpine goat's milk from a local Amish farmer, since Gwen swears that the time-consuming process of hand-milking goats yields better-tasting cheese than mechanized methods, which can be more stressful for the animals. The Apfels' fragrant St. Johnsville is modeled after Mothais sur Feuille, an earthy, soft-ripened classic chèvre from the historical Poitou region of France. Aged for three weeks and blanketed in a rippled, yeasty geotrichum mold, St. Johnsville has a buttery, spreadable texture with a fresh, chalky core. Notes of hay and wild onion yield to a pronounced mushroom-y finish. Enjoy it smeared on crusty bread, with a glass of Chablis.
Bonne Bouche From Vermont Creamery
Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery makes her small pucks of Bonne Bouche in the tradition of the Loire Valley classic Selles-sur-Cher. A light dusting of edible vegetable ash lowers the pH on the surface of the cheese, which is then aged in a high-moisture environment, making Bonne Bouche soft, runny, and luscious. When young, it has a delicate texture and bright, citrusy notes that sparkle with Belgian-style wheat beer. With a few weeks of age, Bonne Bouche takes on a sweet, smoky hazelnuttiness and a gooey consistency that's best enjoyed with Pinot Noir or a light, gravelly Chinon.
This flattened log lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bonne Bouche. Monte Enebro gets its surprisingly "bluey" bite from an unconventional inoculation for goat cheese—it's rubbed with Penicillium spores, which are typically used to make Roquefort and other pungent blues.
Enebro is Spanish for "juniper," and bold, piney flavors do indeed permeate this cheese. The juniper notes are soft and floral in younger versions, but develop into a woodsy, peppery bite with age. Monte Enebro is often aged in a lower-moisture environment, so even the young version is firm, with a dense, smooth center; just beneath its moldy, ashed rind, you'll find a thin, barnyard-y, and slightly chewy creamline. As it ages, though, Monte Enebro's textures become more extreme: The creamline softens and takes on a gamey, aggressive funk, while the bone-white interior grows chalky and splintery. It's marvelous with oily black olives, walnuts, dry cured sausage, and flinty white wine.
Logs of Monte Enebro weigh around three pounds, which is larger than most traditional goat cheeses. Even sliced, it makes a striking addition to a composed cheese board, but keep in mind that a cheese's natural aging process stops once it's cut. Unless you're buying the whole piece, Monte Enebro should be purchased at the stage of ripeness that you prefer.
O'Banon From Capriole
O'Banon is cheese-maker Judy Schad's American interpretation of a pungent Provençal darling, Banon à la Feuille. While the original French version came wrapped in eau de vie–soaked chestnut leaves, Judy douses her leafy wrapping in Woodford Reserve bourbon. The damp leaves lock in plenty of moisture, enabling the growth of yeasty tan and occasionally blue molds, while the whiskey lends a subtle, toasty sweetness that's unusual in goat's milk cheese.
The memorable little parcels are vacuum-packed before shipping, which slows the natural aging process. For a more developed flavor, remove the plastic wrapping; place your O'Banon, still in its leaves, in a paper bag; and let it hang out in your crisper drawer for a week or two. With a little age, this is a fabulous chèvre for red-wine drinkers. Enjoy it with a spicy, jammy Grenache-Syrah blend, or a splash of bourbon.
A catchall name for a family of small, soft-ripened cheeses from the Piedmont region in Italy, Robiola Piemonte can be made from cow's, goat's, or sheep's milk—always with the addition of cream—or any combination of the three, and the results can vary wildly between producers.
Goat's milk Robiolas range from fresh and fluffy, with just a whisper of bloomy rind, to molten, pungent stink bombs. They are produced on several small, rural farms, and the types available here in the US are always changing. Luigi Guffanti imports many of the Robiolas sold in the States, including some well-aged, practically liquefied versions. The runnier types take on spiced, gamey notes that shine with a scoop of quince jam or fig mostarda and a brioche-y Champagne.
Ask for Robiola Piemonte at your local cheese chop.
This little Portuguese stinker has a lot in common with a style of Spanish sheep's milk cheese from nearby Extremadura. Its sticky, thin, orange rind is the result of periodic saltwater rinsing during the aging process. This rinsing encourages the growth of Brevibacterium linens, the bacterial culture involved in pungent cheeses like Taleggio, Limburger, and Époisses.
Cabra Raiano is sliceable and semisoft when young, liquefying to a pudding-like goo with age. The nose is a lot to handle, but if you can get past that barnyard-y, wet-goat haze, you'll be rewarded for your bravery. Cabra Raiano tastes like the forest floor in all the very best ways: Notes of alliums, shiitake mushrooms, musty hay, and rare red meat are brightened by a tangy lactic sparkle.
Even if it seems too big, buy your Cabra Raiano whole, and serve it like the Spaniards do their Torta del Casar: Plop it in a small bowl, remove the entire top rind, and dunk your spoon into the molten interior. It does well with salty almonds and Tempranillo.
Chabichou du Poitou
Chabichou du Poitou received its formal Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation in 1990, though it's been produced in west-central France for centuries. It always comes in a cylindrical shape, weighing approximately six ounces; the soft, bloomy rind is white and wrinkly with geotrichum mold, with the occasional smattering of blue freckles.
This classic chèvre is often aged in drier environments, and, as a result, it tends to hold its shape better than some of its runnier cousins. Its creamy outer layer is typically rather solid, with a dense and splintery white core. In the spring, young Chabichoux du Poitou have hints of onion, lemon, and straw that pair nicely with stony Pouilly-Fumé.
This semi-firm goat cheese from Catalonia is the most democratic of the bunch. It's particularly mild in early spring, but even as older wheels become available later in the season, the pale white, minimally stinky Garrotxa is unlikely to scare off the sliced-cheddar set. At the same time, its complex, herbal, and nutty flavors will appeal to the cheese enthusiasts on your guest list. Its thin gray rind has what Liz Thorpe, author of The Cheese Chronicles, describes as "the velvety fuzz of reindeer antlers," but Garrotxa is otherwise visually unassuming. It's a great match for jamón ibérico, Marcona almonds, and amontillado sherry.