The great wide world of French goat cheese is, well, great and wide. Three thousand producers and 60 dairies produce over 265 million pounds of goat cheese each year—that’s a staggering amount of cheese. French farmers manage the third largest goat herd in Europe, with 1,381,000 goats—it takes a lot of goats to make so much cheese. They export about 27 percent of their cheeses to Northern Europe and America, which is a wonderful thing for us Chèvre fans. France is the largest producer of pure goat cheeses—cheese made with goat’s milk only—in the world.
In French, Chèvre simply means goat. But for our purposes, when we refer to Chèvre, we’re talking about the countless generations of French goat cheesemaking tradition. If goat cheeses are anything, they’re diverse. We’re often accustomed to thinking of that creamy, tangy fresh kind as the only kind—but Chèvre ranges from spreadable and young to flaky and aged. The cheeses are crafted throughout all of France, and each region has its own way of doing things—and is super proud of that fact.
“What I’m always thinking about—and what always strikes me when I go to France and interact with French cheeses and cheesemakers—is the centuries of refinement,” says Tia Keenan, New York City-based fromager and author of Chèvre. “As Americans, we don’t get to see that much. It’s a matter of time, culture and careful refinement that can’t be replicated” that are the essential ingredients in French goat cheese.
Historically, French Chèvre has been produced in eight regions: Poitou-Charentes; Centre-Val de Loire; Bourgogne; Rhône-Alpes; Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur; Languedoc-Roussillon; Midi-Pyrénées; and Aquitaine; all south of the Loire River, where the geography, climate and tradition dictate the many varieties of cheeses crafted there. Fourteen French goat cheeses have the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) label, ensuring that the Chèvre has been made in a strictly designated geographical area using only local milk and traditional production techniques.
A Rich History
Goats were one of the first-ever animals to be domesticated by humans, and we’ve been turning goat milk to cheese for nearly 8,000 years. The style we are familiar with today has its roots in the 8th Century, when Moors from Spain set out to occupy France. The armies of the Umayyad Caliphate needed to eat, and so their brought their goats along on their journey. Their military pursuits didn’t go so well, and they left their goats behind.
The Loire River Valley farmers began caring for the goats and transforming their mlik into cheese. Over a millennium, they built up a Chèvre empire; 70 percent of France’s goat cheese is crafted in the Loire. “Thousands of unique things happened over time to bring us to this moment,” says Keenan. “Not a lot of ingredients can claim that.” It’s that generations-after-generations of tweaking, perfecting and recommitting to quality that makes for a truly unparalleled food. Like all well-made cheese, it all starts with the impeccable quality of the fresh milk.
Although the industry has seen innovation, the cheesemaking basics remain unchanged. Starter cultures are added to raw or pasteurized goat’s milk, and rennet begins the gradual coagulation of the milk over one to two days. The solid curd is usually drained through a cloth and is made up of caseins—large molecules of milk proteins—and fat. The curd is then molded into whatever shape the cheesemaker chooses and salted. Some cheeses are dusted with vegetable or oak charcoal. Some cheeses are eaten fresh, after being drained, while others are carefully matured. With age, cheeses become firmer, denser, drier and more complex.
Around the year 1880, goat’s milk producers began working together in cooperatives, particularly in the Centre and Poitou-Charentes regions. Dairies at this time were the first to produce goat cheeses from pasteurized milk. Even as many cheesemakers scaled up to meet larger demands for selling and exporting, they did not lower their quality standards or disregard time-honored tradition. They’ve accommodated the realities of modern commerce, while staying true to their identity.
In the 1970s, with a revived interest in fresh and traditional foods, goat cheeses gained a renewed popularity and started to become sought-after around the world. French goat cheese has also laid a foundation for the much newer American artisanal cheesemaking movement, too. “We should have respect and gratitude for French goat cheeses, as they have influenced global cheesemaking,” Keenan says. “This is foundational cheese.”
So Many Cheeses,
Such Little Time
Where to start? French goat cheeses are anything but uniform—they represent diverse regions, styles, textures and tastes. They can be made from either raw or pasteurized milk (raw milk cheeses are available in the U.S. only if they are aged over 60 days). They can be crumbly or creamy; young or aged. Chèvre comes in discs and wheels, logs and pyramids, and even cute little buttons. Before marketing strategies were a thing, cheeses presented in different shapes, perhaps dusted in vegetable ash, rolled in herbs or pressed with a leaf, distinguished themselves as special in a crowded market. The cheese represented a particular microregion with its own sense of history and place.
Fresh goat cheeses have a light, bright creaminess, and no rind to speak of. Those snow-white logs and spreadable tubs of Chèvre are young and lactic, with an acidic bite. Natural rind goat cheeses like Valençay, Crottin and Selles-sur-Cher develop their exteriors as they age over time. With some cheeses, powdered vegetable ash helps neutralize the cheese surface, so the correct molds can grow and create the rinds. Bloomy-rinded goats like Goat Brie, Goat Camembert, Bûcherondin and Chèvre d’Argental are coated with Penicillium candidum, and aged goat cheeses like Tomme de Chèvre and Bleu de Chèvre develop complex flavors over time.
Instead of being intimidated by the dizzying array of cheese options, Keenan recommends feeling empowered to explore and have fun with cheeses that may be either familiar or new.
Some Favorites to Try
There’s no wrong place to begin when it comes to exploring the many possibilities of Chèvre. You can’t go wrong with asking your monger for a favorite find. Here are a few popular varieties, in no particular order:
• Crottin de Chavignol from Berry, in the Loire Valley, is a rustic little round of cheese which packs a wallop of tangy, sharp flavor. It becomes drier and increasingly intense with age, a bit gamy and incredibly delicious.
• Tomme de Chevre Aydius, from the village of Aydius in the Béarnaise Pyrénées region of France, is made in the style of the sweet, smooth sheep’s milk wheels famous in the region, except with raw goat’s milk. It’s aged for about six months for a grassy, fruity and an almost (wonderfully) musty flavor.
• The pyramid-shaped, ash-coated Valençay comes with a story: after Napoleon’s military defeat in Egypt, he demanded the pointed tops of the cheese be removed, hence the truncated top. The thin rind yields to a dense, piquant paste with mineral notes.
• The tiny village of Saint-Maure, southeast of Paris, is famous for its goat cheeses—shaped like logs and pierced with a straw or stick from end to end. The straws began as a trick for keeping the fragile, young cheese logs from crumbling into oblivion, and continue because, well, they’re tradition. The texture of Saint-Maure de Touraine becomes firmer with age, bridging the crumbly/creamy divide. Balanced, lemony, tangy and classic, this AOC-protected cheese has been made for more than a thousand years.
• Goat cheeses can be blue, too. From the Vendée, in western France, Bleu du Bocage is aged for several months, but retains a stunning delicateness. Its bright white paste is laced with a grayish-green blueing. It has a toasty, clean flavor, with a not-at-all overpowering blue saltiness at the finish.
Pairing, Cooking and Digging In
Goat cheese is “an almost magical ingredient that’s both accessible and special at the same time—an everyday ingredient that never ceases to surprise,” notes Keenan. It’s also a nutritional heavyweight, packed with calcium and protein, along with vitamins and minerals. It has less lactose and less sodium than cow’s milk cheeses and is easier to digest.
Goat cheese is a “wonderful, fresh, nutritious, delicious ingredient that can go into all the dishes you are making,” says Keenan. It can be a perfect way to add great flavor and depth to all the fresh vegetables you have in your fridge, turning a simple salad into a satisfying meal.
When Americans think goat cheese, we often think salad. And while a warm medallion of a goat log atop a bed of peppery arugula or fresh Chèvre crumbled into a bowl of beets and walnuts is a gorgeous thing, salads are just the start of the many culinary possibilities.
Dig into some fresh Chèvre for breakfast, perhaps with sliced ripe peaches and a generous drizzle of honey. French goats are great additions to scrambled eggs and frittatas. They add personality and depth to mac and cheese, gratins and roasted veggies. Keenan suggests using fresh goat cheese in place of mascarpone in pretty much any recipe, but perhaps especially in stuffed shells. Serve your favorite goat cheese for dessert with shards of dark chocolate and fresh berries. When it comes to wines, acidic, mineral-driven and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc pair beautifully with those same qualities in Chèvre. Bubbly wine can cut through the cheese’s richness with its fizzy texture—try Crémant de Loire, sparkling wine from the Loire region. Natural wines and goat cheeses often meld beautifully too, as they share just a bit of tanginess. Keenan also recommends pucker-inducing naturally fermented sour beers and ciders, which echo Chèvre’s underlying funk. DB