Fresh chèvre takes advantage of spring produce
When people think about seasonal eating, fruits and vegetables are the first foods that spring to mind. There’s a world of difference between the plump ripe tomato plucked from the vine in July and the pale anemic import offered at the supermarket in the depths of winter. There are other produce changes in flavor and texture throughout the growing season — consider the new potatoes of early summer and their heftier autumn cousins, or compare the tender leaves of young kale to its robust, more mature version.
Like the spring greens gracing farmers market stalls, goat milk also has seasonal variations. For pastured goats, an increase in milk production after giving birth coincides with a dietary shift from hay and feed to brand new grass. The goats’ milk has a noticeably richer flavor, and one of the best ways to appreciate it is by sampling a fresh chèvre.
“Fresh spring chèvre has more vibrancy — that’s the only way I can put it,” says Sarah Marcus, owner and cheesemaker of Dundee, OR-based Briar Rose Creamery. “It tastes like spring.”
Keep in mind some larger producers standardize their milk to ensure a consistency in their fresh chèvre, which means consumers will not notice a difference between the fresh chèvre produced in spring and the fresh chèvre available during the rest of the year. However, for farmstead cheesemakers as well as larger producers that don’t standardize their milk, fresh spring chèvre offers one of the first tastes of the season.
Some of the best food pairings for fresh spring chèvre take advantage of the season’s produce; try crumbling fresh chèvre over young spinach or a salad of spring greens, or serving with steamed asparagus, grilled zucchini, snow peas or heirloom cherry tomatoes. Honey and walnuts are classic accoutrements, but fresh chèvre also shines when spread generously on a baguette with strawberry jam.
When incorporating fresh spring chèvre into dishes, keep in mind the fresh flavor should be the focus. “The best way to enjoy spring chèvre is not to adulterate it too much,” explains Leslie Cooperband, owner of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, located in Champaign, IL. “You want to appreciate the flavor.”
Simplicity Reins Supreme
Accordingly, some of the best culinary applications for fresh spring chèvre are the simplest. Crumble a handful of fresh chèvre over a pizza topped with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables or toss fresh chèvre with grilled vegetables and pasta. Roll a log of fresh chèvre in chopped fresh herbs like thyme, marjoram, sage and basil and serve with crackers or crostini.
At breakfast time, add fresh spring chèvre to an omelette, quiche or frittata. Cooperband recommends incorporating fresh chèvre into frittatas with asparagus, local greens and foraged ramps (also known as wild leeks). Try crumbling fresh chèvre over a plate of scrambled eggs or spreading on a bagel in lieu of cream cheese. Whip fresh chèvre with honey and grated lemon rind for a spread that can be used on toast, pancakes or waffles.
Marcus notes since fresh chèvre brings out the vanilla notes in food, it is best in desserts and with fresh fruit. “It goes with strawberries better than anything,” she says. “I’ve also enjoyed it spread on fresh pineapple.”
Since fresh chèvre is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than cream cheese, it can serve as a healthier — and more flavorful — substitute in dessert recipes. Blend fresh chèvre with Greek yogurt and sugar for an easy cheesecake filling and serve in mini phyllo shells topped with fresh fruit or preserves. Or make a dessert spread: mix fresh chèvre with lemon curd, garnish with fresh lemon zest and serve with gingersnaps.
“Since chèvre is a fresh cheese, it should be paired with a light drink,” advises Adeline Druart, president of Vermont Creamery in Websterville, VT. “I would recommend Sauvignon Blanc, rosé or a light summer beer.”
Fresh spring chèvre’s tangy flavor is offset best by crisp white or young red wines. While Sauvignon Blanc is a classic choice, a fruity Chardonnay also makes for a good pairing. For red wines, try a Zinfandel, Pinot Noir or Malbec.
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“I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so I’d go with a good IPA,” says Marcus when asked about beverage pairings for fresh chèvre. Beer drinkers will also appreciate fresh chèvre paired with wheat ale. For an unconventional approach, enjoy fresh chèvre with a bright, citrusy cocktail like a daiquiri or gimlet.
When selecting a fresh spring chèvre, make sure the texture is soft, but not mushy. “Avoid anything with a texture like toothpaste!” says Druart.
Mike Koch, co-founder and president of FireFly Farms in Accident, MD, recommends consumers check the labels. “If you are looking for the most natural chèvre, look for one with fewer ingredients,” he says. For example, FireFly Farms uses only four ingredients: milk, starter culture, salt and a small amount of vegetable rennet.
Koch also encourages consumers to buy local. “Support your small local goat farm — fresh chèvre is worth going out of your way for,” he explains. “It will make a real difference as far as freshness and quality.”
“Look at where it’s made,” agrees Druart. “It’s important to select a goat cheese with a connection to the farm.”
“You want a sense of how fresh the milk is and how the animals are treated,” says Cooperband. She notes Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is Animal Welfare Approved, an independent certification that emphasizes pasture-based animal husbandry and humane livestock treatment.
Since chèvre is a fresh cheese, it has a short shelf life. It should be eaten within a few days of purchase, although unopened, vacuum-sealed packages from the supermarket will keep for up to two months. Store fresh chèvre in the coldest part of the refrigerator or in the cheese drawer, taking care that the temperature is at or below 40 degrees F. Since exposure to air causes fresh chèvre to dry out, keep it tightly wrapped in plastic wrap or wax paper or store it in a plastic zip-top bag with the air squeezed out.
While goat cheesemaking goes back thousands of years (it’s thought to be one of the earliest made dairy products), the history of American fresh chèvre can be counted in decades. Sonoma, CA-based cheesemaker Laura Chenel’s is credited with pioneering America’s commercial goat cheese industry in California in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, fresh American chèvre went mainstream, thanks in part to the goat cheese salad chef Alice Waters featured on the menu at locavore restaurant Chez Panisse (made with Chenel’s chèvre, of course).
Today, consumers have a wealth of fresh spring American chèvre to choose from, ranging from small-scale farmstead cheesemakers who sell their products at farmers markets to national brands available in the supermarket dairy aisle.
“Our chèvre has two unique qualities,” says Druart. “First, the very fresh, clean taste and lemony flavor — we use less salt to let the freshness of the milk shine. The other unique quality is the texture, which is very light.” Druart explains this texture is achieved via a long maturation of the milk and the slow draining of the whey from the curd; they do not break the curd during this process.
Since Vermont Creamery does not standardize its milk, it is necessary to adjust the technique to compensate for seasonal variations. During the spring, the fresh chèvre’s lemony flavor becomes even more pronounced.
In addition to its classic fresh chèvre, Vermont Creamery also offers flavored varieties, including herb de Provence, three peppercorn and cranberry, orange and cinnamon. Three new flavors have been added just in time for spring: smoky pepper jelly, clover blossom honey, and blueberry, lemon and thyme.
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“I believe our chèvre to be the best on the market,” says Koch. “Our milk is sourced from seven family farms not more than 30 miles away and is processed within 24 hours.” He notes while all chèvre is fresh and tangy, FireFly Farms’ Allegheny chèvre is almost citric. During the spring, the fresh chèvre is noticeably creamier, thanks to the luscious quality of the spring milk.
FireFly Farms uses a hands-on process to create its fresh chèvre: it is scooped by hand, drained in cloth bags and then massaged by hand. This ensures a high-quality product and also is in line with the Appalachian-based company’s commitment to create jobs in rural America.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
“A few things distinguish our fresh chèvre,” says Cooperband. “We milk two breeds, Nubian and LaMancha, and our milk has a sweet cream taste. Our milk is also super fresh — about 12-14 hours old when we start making chèvre.” He notes the creamery uses a traditional, slow fermentation after culturing and renneting the milk, with a 20-22 hour incubation period before ladling into cheesecloth. There’s minimal manipulation (the cheese isn’t squeezed once it’s placed in cheesecloth), and the fresh chèvre is salted by hand.
“Our chèvre is very fresh, with no goatiness,” explains Cooperband. “It’s very mild and tangy, with a lemony flavor.” In addition, the fresh chèvre’s fluffy texture is maintained by packaging in hand-packed tubs, rather than being shaped into logs.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery offers plain chèvre as well as herbes de Provence and fresh cracked black pepper varieties. Seasonal flavors include pesto and sun-dried tomato, made with tomatoes grown on the farm.
Briar Rose Creamery
“I think what sets our fresh chèvre apart is the depth of flavor,” says Marcus. She notes the creamery’s milk is sourced from goats with year-round access to fresh grass nourished by salty ocean breezes. “The quality of that milk translates to incredible cheese.”
In the spring, the fresh chèvre takes on an even fresher quality, with the cheese’s brightness coming through. The fresh spring chèvre’s texture is a bit fluffier than the rest of the year, and since acidification happens faster, the cheesemaking process is adjusted to use less rennet.
Besides its classic fresh chèvre, Briar Rose Creamery also offers garlic-herb, lemon-dill and rosemary and peppercorn flavored versions. The classic chèvre also forms the base for the creamery’s award-winning chocolate chèvre truffles made with dark chocolate and cocoa powder. “They taste like the best chocolate cheesecake bite you’ve ever had,” enthuses Marcus.