Chances are you've had goat cheese. Maybe you've even called it chevre. A staple of gallery reception spreads, of beginner's level savory tarts, and of early-20-something stabs at culinary adulthood, generally speaking, goat cheese makes food nerds and newbs alike get all psyched in the fancy cheese section (next to the olives) or the dairy section (by the yogurt) or at the farmer's market or even the specialty cheese store (once they've advanced to some next-level maneuvers in the kitchen).
Why? Why all the fervor for something that you can make in your kitchen pretty easily from scratch (making goat cheese at home really just boils down to goat's milk, cheesecloth, garlic, salt and lemon juice, plus the seasoning of your choosing), or find in a grocery store?
Well, maybe the secret lies partly in goat's milk's unique flavor, which starts on the farm. Goats are a relatively low-maintenance animal to raise – humans have actually been raising goats longer than we have sheep or cattle – and the milking period is somewhat limited. Typically, "responsible goat farmers will 'dry off' a herd once kids have been weaned," says Denise Noiseux of Meadowstone Farm in Brooklyn. This means there's a six-week window while goat kids are nursing for collecting goat's milk for cheese. And the licensing for producing goat's milk is "stringent" says Noiseux – which means that the milk is of high quality (and low quantity). (Meadowstone Farm itself isn't producing goat cheese this season because their goat's milk supply went sour during a Hurricane Irene-induced power outage, but Noiseux hopes to get the does up and running again later this year.) Currently only a handful of farms in Connecticut are cleared to get baaah-d with it. And the resulting cheese has at least a little bit of tartness to a genuine barnyard stink, and that's meant to be the highest of compliments.
The lighter, tangier kind (referred to as fresh chevre) is probably what you're most familiar with – it's the kind that comes in a little log, right next to the good olives at the grocery store. That subtle tartness is associated with the typical use of acidifiers like vinegar and lemon juice, which add a bite to the mild creaminess of goat's milk. But it also depends on the breed of goat that's producing the milk, as well as the pasture (aka grass), feed and hay it's been gnawing on.
Fresh chevre pairs well with things like peaches and apricots and beets; it's an easy way for amateurs to make those ace sweet-savory pairings that feel really grown-up. But if you really want to advance beyond a wheel of supermarket Boursin and into the realm of the local, fresher, and more delicious, try Beltane Farm's fresh chevres. Made in small batches in Lebanon and available plain (or in flavors like herbs de Provence, black pepper and dill), Beltane Farm cheeses are available online (check out the awesome Artisan Made Northeast, artisanmade-ne.com), at farmer's markets and specialty grocery stores, as well as at the farm itself – weekend tastings happen in May. (A full listing of chevre hot spots is available below.)
But goat cheese goes beyond the soft, crumbly, tangy kind that can be made in your kitchen once you've really gone hog-wild for it. There's also the hard, aged kind, that tastes like hay – earthy and fungal, with a sharp aftertaste. The rind is bolder, and sometimes washed, too. This takes longer to make, and is typically available later in the season – cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days to be considered "aged." There's even blue goat cheese, too.
With all that information, you might be thinking that this whole goat cheese thing is a lot to wrap your head (and your mouth) around. Heck, you might even feel like you need to go back to school. Well, Fairfield Cheese Company has you covered: join them May 1, 7-9 p.m., for Goat-a-palooza ($45), a tasting of all the goat cheeses that you can imagine, and then some, as part of their Cheese School evening programming. Call (203) 292-8194 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot.
Until then, here's a list of where you can get your chevre fix.
Beltane Farm, 59 Taylor Bridge Road, Lebanon, (860) 887-4709, beltanefarm.com
Griffin Farmstead, 30 Copperhill Road, East Granby, (860) 413-9733, griffinfarmstead.com
Bush Meadow Farm, 738 Buckley Highway, Union, (860) 684-3089, bushmeadowfarm.com
Ancona's Market, 720 Branchville Road, Ridgefield, (203) 544-8436, anconasmarket.com
Artisan Food Store, 760 A-Main St. South, Southbury, (203) 262-9390, artisanmade-ne.com
Chesnut Fine Foods, 1012 State Street, New Haven, (203) 782-6767, chesnutfinefoods.com
Fairfield Cheese Company, 2090 Post Road, Fairfield, (203) 292-8194, fairfieldcheese.com
Fromage Fine Foods and Coffees, 873 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook, (860) 388-5750, fromagefinefoods.com
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