Chèvre Select: Goat farms produce highly sought-after cheeses

Goats have certainly been tagged with a bad reputation. Often, cartoons portray them as eating everything and anything, even tin cans. But goats are probably one of the most misunderstood creatures in the world. These animals are quite docile by nature and actually very picky about their diets. Admittedly, they are extremely curious and will taste things to see if they are to their liking – hence the myth of the tin can.

Goats are browsers, which means they actually prefer brush and leaves to grass and are therefore able to survive in a desert climate by making the most of the plants available to them. But they thrive in various climates and will eat hay and grain, though this is not their original nature. Versatile animals, goats are used as pack animals and for meat, hair (from certain breeds), hides and milk. Goat milk is used throughout the world and, in many countries, is more likely to be consumed than cow’s milk.

Goat milk is often the choice of cheesemakers, such as Ken and Jenn Muno of Goatsbeard Farm in Harrisburg, Mo. The Munos have a herd of about 50 goats and have dedicated themselves to sustainable farming practices and high standards in their cheesemaking endeavors. From fresh chèvre to feta to aged hard cheeses, their product line demonstrates their skill as cheesemakers, as well as the versatility of their raw material: the milk.

The consistency of fresh goat milk is comparable to that from a cow. A well-tended goat will produce about a gallon of milk per day, which will yield approximately 1 pound of cheese. High amounts of capric, caprylic and caproic acids lend the distinctive flavor that you will note as you taste the milk or cheese. According to some palates, these flavor components will develop into a strong and distinctive presence with aging.

Goat milk lends itself to a variety of types of cheese production. Consumers will find goat milk Cheddars, Goudas, bloomy rinds and blues. Goat milk can be blended with cow milk or sheep milk, resulting in a product with layers of flavor components.

Chèvre is probably the best-known type of goat milk cheese. So named because it is the French word for “goat,” chèvre (pronounced SHEV-ruh) is the most basic of cheeses. It is consumed as a fresh product and can be ready to eat four days after the milk is processed – an ideal situation for a farmstead producer. Since there is no long-term storage required, there is no commitment to aging space or time. For a small farmer, this is quite important as the source of revenue is not tied up for months or even years in the cooler or aging cave. “Providing goat milk for cheese making helps farmers to succeed in making a living on the farm,” said Denise Dixon, vice-president of the Ozark Pride Cooperative.

The process of creating chèvre requires the pasteurization of the milk, then the addition of culture to acidify the milk and of rennet to create a semi-solid gel that is about the consistency of yogurt. This process takes roughly 18 hours. Next the yogurt-like substance is ladled into fine-mesh bags and hung to drain. The draining process takes another 12 to 24 hours. The cheese will then be lightly salted and ready to eat. It can be formed into small discs called crottins, logs, pyramid shapes or simply left as a soft spread.

“Goat cheese is nutritious and is more easily digested than cow cheese, and ... its flavor is unique and especially complementary to some cheeses and to lots of the dishes that are made with it,” Dixon said. Chèvre, as a young cheese, has a very delicate flavor with a less pronounced goat milk taste, so it pairs beautifully with various herbs, spices and condiments. You will often see this cheese coated in black pepper. The popular French blends, such as herbes de Provence and fines herbes, are widely used by specialty cheesemakers. Lemon thyme adds a particularly piquant flavor, and the simplicity of fresh chives is unsurpassed.

Goat cheese pairs beautifully with wine. Select a light-bodied wine to go with fresh types; Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio are good choices. Paul LeRoy, winemaker and general manager of Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, suggested Hermannhof’s newest addition to its wine list, Traminette, an Alsatian-style grape with Gewürztraminer parentage. “This particular wine presents with a soft acid, subtle fruity and spicy notes. Traminette would complement the mildness of the chèvre quite well,” LeRoy said. Aged goat cheeses with a stronger character will pair well with a robust wine such as a Shiraz, Chambourcin or Norton. The spicy nature of these wines will allow the textures and flavors of the cheese to develop to their fullest.