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Flash in the Pan

Spring cheese incident



I was prowling the produce section at the Good Food Store, looking for the first sign of spring’s bounty. Alas, most of the produce was from California. And I don’t want to write about California produce. I’m Chef Boy Ari, champion of local flavor.

Despondent, I headed for the deli, hoping for some samples to cheer me up. I ran into Matt McQuilkin, the cheese dude.

“This is the best time of the year for fresh goat cheese,” McQuilkin said, “because now is when goat milk has the highest content of butterfat, protein and sugar. They say the goat cheese made from spring milk has the best flavor of the year.”

Smelling blood, I began interrogating the poor guy, but before I got too far he deflected me to the Idaho cheese maker that informed him about spring goat cheese: Rollingstone Chèvre of Parma, Idaho. Rollingstone cheeses, made from the milk of their herd of purebred Saanen goats, have won top honors at many cheese competitions. In addition to the usual goat cheeses like chèvre and fromage blanc, Rollingstone also produces an aged grating cheese called Idaho Goatster and a surface-ripened aged chèvre called Bleu Agé.

The word chèvre used to mean “she goat” in Old French. If you can speak French, says Karen Evans of Rollingstone, then you roll the “r.” Otherwise, forget about it and just say “Chev.” Today, chèvre is sometimes used as a generic word for cheese made from goat milk, but it also refers to a specific type of fresh goat cheese that is soft, creamy, tangy, bright white and sometimes spiced. Chèvre—and goat cheese in general—has shot up in national popularity in recent decades, buoyed by the powerhouse Northern California food scene.

Many people associate goat milk and cheese with small, cute farms, often run by small, cute milkmaids. And there remains some truth to this. But like many small things spoiled by popularity, many goat dairy operators have now become impersonal and industrialized, much like the mainstream dairy industry.

This has created a need for the category of “farmstead cheese,” which means that the goats were raised at the same place—and by the same people—who make the cheese. This lets consumers know that they are buying from a small-ish outfit, where quality control can presumably be assured from start to finish.

Interestingly, within the farmstead scene, you do see a surprising proportion of female operators. Perhaps this is because goats are smaller and easier to manage than cows. You can also form personal relationships with goats; women dig that.

Unfortunately, the marketing advantages of labeling cheese “farmstead” has tempted some cheese makers, male and female, to use the label even if they buy some or all of their milk off the farm. Rumors and accusations fly in the goat cheese world over who is truly farmstead, and who is a closet fluid milk buyer.

“If you want to purchase fluid milk you can make cheese all year long,” explains Chuck Evans of Rollingstone. Big milk producers use hormones and play with light conditions to get goats to lactate through the winter. “It’s barely fit to drink, but you can buy it.”

Cheese Dude McQuilkin has no doubt that Rollingstone is a true farmstead cheese. “They are one of our two suppliers who stop sending fresh cheese in the winter,” he says.

Milk production drops in fall as the chèvres start preparing to make next year’s kids. As milk volume decreases, the proportion of total milk solids rises, resulting in a milk that’s high in fat and protein. Unlike the sweet and supple spring cheese made from milk designed to nourish young kids, fall cheese is aged and savory, with a summer’s worth of meals and mishaps built into the flavor.

“I like fall cheese with beets,” Chuck says, “like borscht with fall chèvre.”

Meanwhile, I know from personal experience that spring cheese goes well with the nubile leaves of spring, like spinach, mustard, arugula, baby kale or lettuce, with a vinaigrette, perhaps, and sprinkled with dried fruit.

Rollingstone chèvre hits the shelves Aug. 8. Meanwhile, it’s not too many weeks until Montana’s leafy greens are ready. Until then, it’s California here I come.

I mashed some California chèvre with chopped dates (from Hawaii) and made little balls that I wrapped in bacon (from Montana) held together with toothpicks, and broiled at 350 until golden brown. They were a little too fatty for some tasters, but just right for others. All tasters were deeply impressed with the warm combination of date and chèvre.

I went to the freezer and took out some dried apples from a very good tree here in Missoula that I will never tell you about and began putting apple pieces in my mouth with California chèvre. The flavors devoured each other as they devoured my mouth, the wild tang of apples and the tart cream of the mammary gland. I can’t wait for strawberry season.

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