Valentine’s Day for the Single Cheese

Cheese is a beautiful partner.

It lends itself as effortlessly to bread, olives, almonds, and cornichons as to summer pears and dried cranberries.  At a party, the various cheeses on the cheese platter work together to compliment and balance one another.  They match exceptionally well to wine or beer; they can go savory or sweet- cheese was born ready to pair.

Take the case of the humble chevre, an especially versatile cheese.  This classic fresh goats‚ milk round (chevre means goat in French) may be spread with jam on toast as a light, slightly tangy version of cream cheese, it can be dolloped on pizza, stuffed under the skin of a chicken breast, melted into mashed potatoes, drizzled with honey for dessert.  At the Creamery, we call our version The City Goat, and offer it rolled in herbs such as rosemary and tarragon, or in black Tellicherry pepper, and during farmer‚s market months, we stuff it with sweet piquillo peppers, too.  It has also on occasion been whipped up into a little delight called the Breakfast of Champions ˆ a City Goat split twice and layered with two different kinds of American Spoon preserves.  (This last one will, it has been claimed, make you faster and stronger.)

But the way I first came to know this silken, ultra-fresh cheese, was all by itself, without a single adornment, in the tiny town of Fennville on Lake Michigan.  I was there for a summer to live and work on a little goat farm, with about eleven does, eight or so more baby goats, and one buck.  We milked the does once in the morning and once at night, and would collect up to five or six gallons of milk at each sitting.  In the beginning of the summer, while the farm‚s creamery was still being built and before the cheese vat arrived, the largest pot we had to make the cheese only held about four gallons.  The rest of the milk usually went to a pair of lucky pigs down the road.  So after the evening feeding and milking I would carry the metal drum filled with half of the day‚s milk to the farmers‚ house, and there, in the kitchen, we would make it into cheese.

Milk usually needs to be warmed to a certain temperature before adding the starter cultures and rennet which set the milk, or make it begin to acidify and separate into curds and whey.  But our goats‚ milk was so fresh, so warm, that we actually put it in an ice bath to bring it down to a viable temperature.  Then we’d stir it very gently, put a screen and a clean cloth over the top, and go to sleep.
The next morning, after milking chores, we would test the new-formed curd with the broad side of a rounded knife; if it split with a crevice down the middle, it was ready to be molded.  We would pour off the whey (which also went to those gleeful porkers down the road), and ladle the curd into molds (which look just like cups with little holes all over), and sprinkle salt on top.  The cheeses would drain all day, and as they lost moisture they would condense until each was about a third its original size.  Once firm enough, we would flip the cheeses out of their molds and slide them back in, for uniform shape, salting, and drainage.  By the next morning, we could flip them out for good, and eat them.

Their taste was unlike anything else- mild and subtly sweet with only the very softest hint of tanginess.  The chevre was firm to cut into, but yielding in texture, and slid over our whole mouths like fresh cream.  It was the first cheese I ever learned to make, and its simplicity was something we did not want to mess around with.  Especially in those first weeks, to cover up this exceedingly tenderly crafted chevre with any other flavor was unthinkable.  We ate it with spoons.  It tasted like western Michigan grasses.

Here at the Creamery we get our goat milk from Old McDonald‚s Farm near Freemont, with whom we work very closely.  When it arrives, we know the milk has come to us just a day or so out of the goat, and we treat it extraordinarily carefully, hand-ladling the curd to give the cheese its signature flaky texture.  The Creamery was first created, 5 years ago, out of the Deli’s need for really good fresh cheeses to top its bagels and the Bakehouse’s need for superior pastry-making ingredients.  Fresh cheeses, unlike harder, aged artisan cheeses made around the country and abroad and imported by the Deli, can’t stand up to heavy packaging and travel.  Unless they are first pumped full of gums and stablilizers, voiding any noteworthy flavor and imparting the texture of rubber, fresh cheeses like chevre and cream cheese are meant to be eaten within days of being made.  The Creamery was able to fill the need for this fresh, local, well-made cheese.  And even though our production has since branched out to include various mold-ripened cheeses, and- just this winter- our very first hard aged cheese, the fresh cheeses are still some of our very best sellers.

When we sample the City Goats, all by themselves, at the grocery stores around town, shoppers are surprised that something this fresh is available to them now in a way it hasn’t been for nearly a century.  They comment on its mellow tang, its smoothness.  They marvel at its balance of luscious and light.  The little kids just taste it and grin.  They really can taste the difference in a cheese created by Michigan goats and loving Michigan cheese-makers.   They love it for the way it lends itself fantastically to many other dishes, to sandwiches with sprouts, to pasta, to fruit.  But most especially, for the wonderous thing it is all on its own. 

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you in the Cheese Shop!