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Springing Up from the Ashes in the Season for Goat Cheese

One thing I love about living in the Midwest is the changing of the seasons. Whenever I tell someone that I’m from Chicago, I generally get the “How do you deal with the weather?” spiel. However, I’m not sure I could live without the cyclical Pete Seeger “turn, turn, turn” philosophy.  Along with this change comes the uncovering of cherished seasonal comforts from past years:  my trusty bicycle, starting a garden, morel mushrooms, picnics, and goat cheese. So many goat cheeses…

Of course, because of modern day animal husbandry techniques, we have the luxury of obtaining goat cheese any time of the year. Some of these techniques are smart business practices for the financial success of dairy farms and cheesemakers, and some are a bit more controversial. For example, the types of goats raised may impact the cycles; Nubian goats may cycle yearlong. Commercial lights and/or hormones, such as melatonin, may also be used to “fake out” a goat into thinking it is a different season.

Regardless of how each cheese is made, every year around this time I remember just how many cheeses I haven’t seen over the long, hard winter. My friendly local cheesemonger is generally the one who reunites me with my long-lost friends. The focus is generally on younger chevre, soft-ripened and crottin-style varieties. There are many more goaty friends to revisit, but we will have to wait a few months for the more aged ones.

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For truly special goat cheese, let’s remember the natural habits of goats in springtime. The animals are feeding on young pastures and flowers. More milk is produced in the spring and summer to provide for their offspring post-kidding season. The result is a milk reflective of the terroir, or the land from which the animals graze. It is very exciting when you can taste an entire range of flavors:  the top notes of citrus or mint, the middle notes of grasses, minerals, walnuts, and the bottom notes of sweet licorice or musky honeysuckle and jasmine.

Let’s take a look at a few favorites from three different regions:  Valençay from the Loire Valley of France, Monte Enebro from Castilla y León in Spain and Wabash Cannonball from Capriole in Indiana, USA. Besides being made from goat’s milk, these cheeses have the inclusion of ash as a common denominator (well, sort of.) Keep reading and you will know what I am alluding to. 

The use of ash originated as a method of preservation for young cheeses. A thin layer of ash added to the surface of the cheese protected the exterior, and aided in the formation of favorable molds(Penicillium candidum, for example) on the rind. This technique is seen more often on goat cheeses than on cheeses from other milk types. Since many goat cheeses generally have a lower pH (i.e. higher acidity), molds forming on the rind do so in a very slow manner. The ash raises the pH level on the surface, enabling quicker and more even mold growth. Originally, the ash was produced from charring grape vines, but today, it is often a mixture of activated charcoal and salt.

Valençay

As the story goes, Napoleon made his literal mark on the future shape of Valençay. Having returned from a devastating defeat in Egypt, Napoleon stopped at the castle of Valençay. The local cheese, being of pyramidal shape, invoked memories of his loss. This, in turn, incited so much rage in Napoleon that he slashed the top of the peak from the cheese, leaving what we know as the truncated form of this classic cheese.

The PDO version of Valençay is raw. However, in the United States, only the FDA-friendly pasteurized version can be found. Nevertheless, the texture is velvety smooth. Its flavor is clean and citrusy with an underlying yeastiness and the essence of raw hazelnuts. Something magical happens when paired with Sancerre wine, a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine from the same area in the Loire Valley, which brings out more of the minerality and herbal notes in the cheese.

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Monte Enebro

Cheesemakers Paloma and Rafael Baez are behind this unique Spanish beauty. Monte Enebro is aged for 30-45 days and incorporates Penicillium roqueforti onto its rind. As you may know, this is the same mold used in blue cheeses, such as Roquefort and Stilton. This may account for why the cheese has a peppery, earthy, walnut flavor.  Additionally, “enebro” translates to juniper in English, and although the specifics of Monte Enebro are a bit elusive, the resinous pine flavor of juniper can be noted, as well.

However, I have greyed the “ashy” line here on classifying this as an ashed-rind cheese. You see, many people believe that Monte Enebro uses the carbonized ingredient on its rind. Just this week, I was perusing cheese plate menus online, and came across a number of restaurants who used this ingredient to describe Monte Enebro. However, the dark rind is simply the result of the mottling of the blue-green mold as it ages over the month. It’s okay, Mr. Enebro, you can still hang with us at our party. We don’t discriminate. This one is just too delicious to leave out.

The shape of Monte Enebro is similar to other Spanish cheeses described as a “mule’s leg.” The texture is extremely dense, almost crumbly, but turns creamy on the palate, and happily lingers on the tongue. A great wine pairing would be a rosé made from Grenache, which is naturally crisp and peppery, and would provide a match to this assertive cheese. Spicy, dry farmhouse ales (a.k.a. Saison beers) also stand up well to Monte Enebro.

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Wabash Cannonball

Capriole’s Wabash Cannonball is made in Greenville, Indiana, close to the Kentucky border. Owner Judy Schad makes her cheeses on the same land as owned by her family since the late 19th century. Just as this cheese shares its name with a classic folk song, this new American classic cheese holds its own alongside its European cousins. 

Capriole uses Geotrichum candidum mold on its rind. Geotrichum candidum is what is responsible for the “brainy” appearance that forms on the rind of many cheeses of this style. The cheese is aged for approximately three weeks, but the underlying ash and wrinkling can been seen more readily around five weeks. Judy Schad has a sense of humor about her aging belle:

“The Cannonball is one of our lovely, luscious ladies of spring. She’s been around for 20 years, proof that the wrinkles can be sexy! You won’t find this elegant little lady on every street corner. She requires a lot of lovin’, reacts most unfavorably when ignored, and performs best when treated with a little sweet talk and glass of crisp, white wine! All her admirers will tell you she’s worth it.”

The texture of this small golf ball-sized gem is delicately flaky. Its flavor is lemony and earthy, which intensifies with age. Towards the end of its life, the Cannonball can take on a life of its own, so heed Judy’s advice, and don’t ignore its care. Funny enough, though, in my mongering days, I had a customer who requested I hold on to a piece for her, and call her once it was covered in blue-green fuzz. One person’s trash…

As Judy mentioned, a crisp white wine would pair well (Chenin Blanc is a classic match.) If beer is your thing, try Wabash Cannonball with a Kölsch lager. The malty sweetness offers a contrast to the tang, and the earthiness from the hops supports the earthiness in the rind.

Hopefully, you will embrace the season with the world’s glorious goat cheeses.  All this talk inspires me to find a jaunty little scarf, dust off my bicycle, pack up a picnic of equally dusty, ashed cheese and libations, and ride off to a little nook in the woods.