Simple, Serious Pleasure 

Now is the time for goat cheese.

I'm fascinated by cheese. How can the secretions of bovine and ungulate mammary glands transform into so many textures, flavors, and colors? Standing in the cheese section of the grocery store can be an overwhelming experience, and I wonder helplessly where to begin.

Last week, the store's cheese purchaser had the answer. "Now is the best time of the year for fresh goat cheese," he said, "because spring goat milk has the highest content of butterfat, protein, and sugar."

He referred me (and my barrage of questions) to the Idaho cheese maker who gave him this information: Chuck Evans of Rollingstone Chèvre in 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 such as 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 Evans, then you roll the "r." Otherwise, forget about it and just say "chev." Today, chèvre is sometimes used as a generic word for goat cheese, but it usually 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.

Long popular in Europe, legend has it that the American goat-cheese revolution started in northern California during the late 1970s, growing out of the partnership between Chef Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse Café and Sonoma cheese maker Laura Chenel. Waters put chèvre on the map with a salad that includes half-inch rounds of cheese marinated up to a week in olive oil, rosemary, and thyme. The cheese is then dusted with bread crumbs, warmed in the oven, and served atop a bed of baby greens with a vinaigrette of wine and sherry vinegars and whisked-in olive oil, salt, and black pepper.

Many people associate goats with small, cute farms run by small, cute milkmaids. There is 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 cow 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.

Unfortunately, the marketing advantages of labeling cheese "farmstead" have tempted some cheese makers to use the label even if they buy some or all of their milk. Rumors and accusations fly in the goat-cheese world over who is truly farmstead and who is a closet milk buyer.

The cheese purchaser 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.

"If you want to purchase milk, you can make cheese all year long," explains Evans. 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."

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 built into the flavor.

"Fall cheese is earthy," says Evans, "so I serve it with earthy things, like borscht."

Whatever you do, you should let cheese warm at least to room temperature before serving to maximize the flavor.

Playing with the possibilities of springtime, I mashed chèvre with chopped dates and made little balls that I wrapped in bacon (held together with toothpicks) and broiled at 350 until golden-brown. These morsels were a bit fatty for some tasters but perfect for others. All tasters were deeply impressed with the warm combination of date and chèvre.

Scrambled eggs with chèvre, minced garlic, and chopped fresh basil made for a superb breakfast. But if you like your eggs well-cooked, beware. The cheese imparts an undercooked appearance long after the eggs are done.

In the end, my favorite presentation was simply room-temperature chèvre and dried apples. Chewing them together, the flavors devoured each other. Simple, serious pleasure. •

If you want to learn more about cheese, here are some good books:

The New American Cheese by Laura Werlin (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000)

The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books, 2000)

The Cheese Plate by Max McCalman and David Gibbons (Potter, 2002)

Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins (Workman, 1996)

For more info on Rollingstone cheeses or to order, visit http://homepage.mac.com/chevre/index.html.

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