One doesn’t order just plain old goat cheese these days. One orders chevre, if you can remember to pronounce it properly.
Americans who do not realize that in the French language the re in chevre has a tonsillar, guttural trill, like a bird’s, call it “shev err,” “shev era” and “shev,” thinking they are imitating the French pronunciation. It’s pronounced “shev (trill) hruh,” for reasons never explained by my seventh-grade French teacher. And it’s a high-brow, rather snobby little cheese, even if it doesn’t mean to be.
It’s just that American food snobs, whose numbers these days have seemingly grown to include practically the entire population of the United States, have picked up on this strangely tart, tangy cheese and have adopted it as one of their in foods. These food groupies seem to take great pleasure going around restaurants and markets fancying themselves as goat cheese experts, uttering, “shev . . . shev . . . shev (or whatever),” in voices loud enough for everyone to hear. In other words, humble chevre has become a bicoastal big gun.
It’s almost embarrassing to attribute the popularity of a single, highly visible in food to one person. But in the United States, one individual can probably be credited. She’s Laura Chenel, a former waitress who found the “key” to her livelihood and passion for work in goat cheese. Now goat cheese is considered a boutique food, which has been delighting gourmet cooks and discerning diners for about a decade.
It all started back in the early ‘70s when Chenel and her husband (now divorced) decided to do what many ecology-conscious young people were doing at that time--going back to the land, growing their own food, raising their own animals. It seems that the goats on Chenel’s farm were taking over because of Laura’s affection for these elegant, docile animals. “Once you have a goat as a pet, you become as attached to it as you would a child,” she said.
Although goats give only three quarts of milk a day compared with 20 quarts from cows, there was enough milk on Chenel’s farm to waste. “It seemed a shame to waste good food, and I always felt that there had to be a way to make use of it.” Well, she did. A friend offered Laura some chevre . French goat cheese. High demand and scant supply makes French goat cheese a coveted luxury by any standards. (Goat cheese constitutes only 4% of the total cheese production in France, but accounts for two-thirds of the world’s goat cheese supply.)
“Well, that transported me. That was it. That was the key to what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make goat cheese,” Chenel said.
Chenel spent a year trying to figure out how to get started. “I took a job at Rouge et Noir, the cheese factory, to learn how to make cheese but soon discovered that only the men made cheese. The women packed cheese. And that was frustrating.”
Finally, Chenel stumbled on a French publication on goat cheese making and spent three months translating it. Then she decided to travel to France to see firsthand how goat cheese was made. “I spent three months living with French families. I not only learned how to raise goats and make cheese, I learned that each farmer made cheese in his particular style. No two were the exactly the same,” she said.
Back at home, Chenel set up a cheese plant in a stone basement, taking hand-made cheese to stores and restaurants to sell. “The response was incredible,” she said.
Soon, restaurateurs around the country were coming to Chenel for goat cheese, with the media, eager for new news, following at their heels. “I was sitting in my little house asking myself: ‘What’s all this attention about? What’s the big deal?’ It took me a year to realize that there was a story there.”
There was a story there, indeed. California Chevre, Chenel’s company, is the largest producer of chevre in the country, providing 60,000 pounds of cheese last year. Since Chenel’s initiation of American-made goat cheese, there are now at least 20 licensed imitators, friends among them, in clear view. Each week 2,000 to 2,400 gallons of milk go into the production of boutique chevre at Chenel’s factory.
Although only in the budding stage of development, Chenel has instituted what could be considered the beginnings of a goat cheese industry, by getting her milk suppliers to improve sanitation and smooth the flow of milk yearlong. Whereas cows are receptive to bulls any time of the year, thus assuring a continual supply of milk throughout the year, the she-goat will accept the he-goat only in the autumn, thereby cutting down supplies in winter months during pregnancy. Chenel has gotten her milk suppliers not only to increase their supplies of milk once wasted, but to change the goat’s milking cycle to provide milk during the dead winter months. “I really don’t know where all this is leading.”
We’ll give her one guess.
Meanwhile, Chenel is constantly experimenting with types of goat cheese. From the humble beginnings of producing a three-day cured cheese that any homemaker can produce in her own kettle at home, she now has come up with 10 other varieties, following more or less some of the 60 varieties of chevre that abound throughout France, particularly in Burgundy and the Alps, Loire and Provence, plus adding a few of her own.
Her style is distinctive, however. Her cheeses range from the simple fromage blanc , a fresh, soft, light and mild chevre , to tome, a hard goat cheese, which Ignacio Vela, a fellow Somona Valley Jack cheese-maker, helped create. A related story on Page 18 describes all of Chenel’s American-made cheeses and their uses, and gives tips for storing and serving.
Traditionally, Europeans enjoy cheese after the main course and salad, preceding the dessert. Occasionally chevre is offered with salad, in place of a salad or in place of dessert. The protein content in cheese seems to stimulate the production of digestive juices to help ease the feeling of fullness in the stomach. Cheese also acts as a cleanser of residual acids from foods such as salad dressing in preparation for the dessert course. Many cheese lovers enjoy chevre with fruits, such as grapes, apples, pears, dried fruit and nuts. Bread and butter also are excellent accompaniments to chevre . One of Chenel’s favorite desserts is fresh goat cheese with warmed cracked walnuts and well-aged Port.
When planning chevre with wine, a general rule is to serve light wines with the milder cheeses and more robust wines with stronger ones. But the final choice is an individual matter. Chevre pairs well with French Burgundy or Bordeaux, French or California Sauvignon Blanc, California Chardonnay or a refined California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Whereas Europeans enjoy cheese plain with fruit, wine or bread, ever-experimental American cooks search for new ways of eating it. You’ll find medallions of warmed goat cheese on cold salads, as a crust on roasts, a filling for poultry and topping for pasta.
For those who would enjoy cooking with chevre, here are some recipes from Chenel’s cookbook, “Chevre! The Goat CheeseCookbook” by Laura Chenel and Linda Siegfried (Peaks Pike Publishing: $9.95 paperback). The book contains recipes for making cheese, tips on buying and storing, plus numerous recipes using goat cheese. Many of the recipes are from leading chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles, Jonathan Waxman of Jams in New York, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and others who have provided the praise and support that sustains Chenel’s efforts to make goat cheese available to the American gourmet food market.
1 small young chicken or 1 game hen
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, rosemary or parsley
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 ounce chevre
Carefully slip fingers between skin and breast meat on each side of breast bone. Combine garlic, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. Sprinkle cavity with garlic mixture, then place some in small pockets under skin on each side of breast bone. Insert goat cheese under skin on each side of breast. Rub skin with olive oil or butter and place on rack in baking pan. Bake at 375 degrees 1 hour, basting with pan juices every 15 minutes. Makes 1 serving.
SUMMER FRUIT WITH FROMAGE BLANC
1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries
2 tablespoons brandy
8 ounces (1 cup) soft chevre (fromage blanc)
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites
1/4 cup ground walnuts, toasted
Peel and thinly slice peaches. Sort and pick through blackberries. Toss fruit in bowl with 2 tablespoons sugar or honey and brandy. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Mix together fromage blanc, lemon peel, vanilla and 1/4 cup sugar. Beat egg whites with 1 teaspoon sugar and salt until stiff. Gently fold beaten egg whites into cheese mixture. Divide fruit into 6 dessert dishes. Top each with 1/6 of cheese mixture. Sprinkle with walnuts. Makes 6 servings.
2/3 cup flour
3 tablespoons butter
5 ounces chevre (chabis), crumbled
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Coarse sea salt
Combine flour, butter and cheese in bowl or food processor and mix to make smooth dough. Roll out into logs as wide in diameter as quarter coin. Wrap in wax paper and chill 1 hour. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Pierce with tines of fork and brush with beaten egg white. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Bake at 375 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes about 1 dozen.
CHEZ PANISSE BAKED GOAT CHEESE WITH GARDEN SALAD
4 (1/2-inch-thick) rounds fresh log chevre (8 ounces)
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
Virgin olive oil
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 head rocket, lamb’s lettuce or small oak leaf and red leaf lettuces or chervil
1 day-old baguette
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 to 3 cloves garlic, split
Place goat cheese rounds with fresh thyme in shallow pan. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup olive oil. Marinate for up to 1 day. Mix together bread crumbs and thyme. Set aside. Combine 1/2 cup oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Wash and dry lettuces.
Slice baguette into 24 (1/4-inch-thick) slices. Brush each slice of baguette with some of melted butter. Place on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 5 to 7 minutes or until croutons are lightly browned. While still warm rub each crouton with cut clove of garlic.
Dip marinated cheese slices in bread crumbs. Place on lightly oiled baking dish. Bake at 400 degrees 6 minutes or until cheese is lightly bubbling and golden brown. Toss lettuces with enough dressing to lightly coat. Arrange on 4 salad plates. Place cheese in center of plates, browned side up. Arrange croutons around cheese. Makes 4 servings.
HOT TOMATOES WITH CHEVRE
2 medium tomatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 to 3 ounces chevre (taupiniere), thinly sliced
Cut off tops of tomatoes. Squeeze out seeds and pulp. Sprinkle with salt. Invert to drain.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet. Add onion. Saute over low heat until lightly browned and almost caramelized, about 10 minutes. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter and add mushrooms. Saute until almost caramelized. Reserve 2 mushroom slices for garnish. Mix mushrooms and onion. Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Fill drained tomatoes alternately with layers of mushroom-onion mixture and cheese, about 3 layers of each. Place one of caramelized slices of mushroom over each tomato. Bake at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 2 servings.
Please see related story on Page 18.