The Goat Cheese Divas


Laura Chenel, the Sonoma cheese maker, introduced California to fresh, French-style goat cheeses more than 20 years ago. But hundreds of years of French farmhouse tradition was not mastered overnight. To this day, these delicate cheeses refuse to conform to modern supermarket culture.

The luscious little pots of loose fromage blanc, the barely formed logs of chevre, the pucks and the pyramids retain their old-world characteristics. They remain as moody and perishable as fruit. Trickiest, they are stubbornly seasonal. They are never better than the time when goat keepers are catching and converting the flush of milk that follows spring kidding.

In other words, that season is now.

Learn about the seasonality of goat cheese, and so much else falls into place. It explains why the youngest, freshest ones, the cream cheeses and chevres, are traditionally partnered with the sweetest and ripest of summer berries. That’s why the aged ones come wrapped in fig and grape leaves. That explains the marriage with walnuts. That explains the herb coatings, the goat cheese salads, the crostini.


These goat cheeses follow roughly the same range of styles of French cow milk cheeses, but the similarities end there. They will never match the richness of a double cream brie, or have the aging life of a mature Cheddar or Parmesan. But they have a summery charm all their own, a unique lightness, a subtle tang, an elegance that seems to trip along the palate an entire register above the flavors and textures of cow milk cheeses.

The explanation lies less in the cheese-making and more in the milk. Goat milk and cow milk are composed differently, says John Bruhn, director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at UC Davis. “The milk-fat globule in goat milk is more susceptible to breaking apart,” explains Bruhn. “In goat milk, if you agitate it, you can get a flavor change. That also occurs with cow’s milk, but it’s not as pronounced.”

Goat milk not only handles differently, it looks different, says Brandon Nelson, a food science lecturer at Cornell University. While cow milk cheeses are a buttery yellow, goat cheese is almost startlingly white. “In the goat, a lot of the carotene is converted to vitamin A,” Nelson says, “so it has a very white milk and you get a glistening white chevre.”

Twenty years into a steep learning curve with this shimmering, delicate milk, a network of Californian goat cheese makers stretching from Ojai to the Oregon border are just mastering how to make cheese from it. The most endearing thing about them, says UC Davis’ Bruhn, is that they happened into it accidentally. “A lot of the people got goats because they liked them,” he says. “Suddenly they had milk, and more goats, and they said, ‘What can I do with this?’ ”

If fromage de chevre was still an exotic curiosity when this bunch got their goats in the late 1970s, goat milk wasn’t. From the 1940s, the Central Valley had at least two dozen goat dairies. Big ones. Laurelwood Acres Dairy in Ripon had more than 1,000 goats in the 1950s and funneled the milk to a health food industry. It even had salesmen door-stepping doctors trying to get them to prescribe the milk as baby food.

Pinky Hawes’ father started Laurelwood Acres after she was born allergic to cow milk. It saved lives, including hers, she believes, but the slightly burnt flavor during evaporation or ultra-pasteurization also gave the milk a reputation as a hard pill to swallow. However, the public loved the goats. They were the biggest draws at county fairs and 4-H shows, says Hawes.


“The Nubians with long ears, they were always the most popular because people thought they looked like dogs,” she says. Hawes first spotted one of the early cheese-makers in a 4-H.

It was Jennifer Bice who arrived in Sonoma County from Los Angeles in the 1960s as a 10-year-old and was desperate to have farm animals. She immediately joined 4-H and started showing goats in fairs judged by Hawes. “We wanted cows, pigs and ducks,” says Bice. “It was the goats that stuck.”

By the 1970s, Bice was engaged to Steven Schack, an Angeleno who majored in psychology at Sonoma State University. “While he was studying, he got a few goats,” recalls Bice. Once married, Bice and Schack took over her parents’ farm in Sebastopol, formed Redwood Hill goat dairy and produced goat milk for the health food market. By the 1980s, they graduated to yogurt, and in the 1990s, to cheese.

Switzerland in Sonoma

Today, Redwood Hill could scarcely be more European in style. In fact, it feels distinctly Swiss. Laid out over a series of ledges down a Sonoma County hillside, goats caper in a series of parallel pens. Goats are kept in age groups, kind of like grades in schools. No prize for spotting the kid pen. That’s the one with all the goats vying for control of the top of haystacks set out for them to climb. They have access to outdoors at all times. As pedigree breeding stock, they tend to have names like racehorses, say Redwood Hill Sequoia Selena.

It is hard to believe that there are 400 of these blueblood goats around. But there are. The fresh air and easy conditions remind visitors of another difference between goat dairies and so many huge cow ones.

Bice employs European staff, students from agricultural colleges over on work-study programs. During evening milking, Sebastien, a Frenchman, and Henri, a Dane, clip the hoofs of a half a dozen goats as the animals are milked. The parlor has drowsy twilight charm. Goats lazily chew grain as the pump whooshes at the same rhythm as a not quite sated kid would suckle. The scent of fresh milk suffuses the place. It is pumped next door, to a cheese room, where after being pasteurized, it will be curdled by the addition of a lactic bacteria.

Whey, the water part of the milk carrying much of the lactose, will then be drained, leaving loose fresh curds. This will be ladled into molds, allowed to drain some more, then fashioned into a number of cheeses.

Redwood Hill’s cheeses include a white log of young chevre, a spreading cheese. The same basic cheese, formed in a disc-shaped mold, might be coated with pepper or herbs and sold in discs. Then there are the more mature cheeses with bloomy Camembert-style rinds.

Schack introduced these cheeses locally by selling them at farmers markets about 10 years ago, but he died suddenly three years ago. Mostly it is now sold through high-end supermarkets and specialty shops, However, in Los Angeles, at Santa Monica farmers market, Schack’s parents sell Redwood Hill cheeses to a faithful crowd of French expatriates most Wednesdays.

Let Them Eat Chevre

If Bice and Schack led their generation into goat breeding, Laura Chenel, a neighbor of Bice’s from Sebastopol pioneered the cheese-making in California. After studying anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley, and acquiring goats along the way (as one did), Chenel found herself with milk, and began making cheese in her kitchen.

By 1979, she had gone to France, to the Loire and Burgundy, to study French farmhouse cheese-making. Here she saw goat cheese hand-made as it had been for centuries. The milk was curdled by adding some of the previous day’s whey. Barely formed, unsalted curds were then brought to the table in special perforated drainers set in pitchers, called faisselles. This brand-new cheese was then either topped with fresh berries, or salted and peppered and consumed with wine.

For the older cheeses, the ones drained in little perforated molds shaped like pyramids and pucks, then salted and left to age for a month, tradition left it to the molds impregnated in the environment to culture the cheeses, and form the bloomy rinds. This mold, observed Chenel, would begin to ripen the newly coagulated and drained cheese from the outside in. The process, called “mold-ripening,” could then be subtly manipulated to create different styles of cheeses. Shapes would affect texture, hence the variety of pyramids, molehills and pucks.

The addition of ash would create yet another kind of cheese. The ash from rosemary branches burnt in farmyard kettles would be applied to the rinds to temper the acidity. The resulting ash-coated cheeses not only looked different, but matured differently and tasted different.

But these ancient processes could not be imported without updating them. Even farmhouse French cheese makers at the time were turning to new, more sterile, methods. Old whey, says Chenel, transmitted contaminants as effectively as it did the good bugs. A modern method involved adding lactic bacteria bought from a pharmaceutical company.

In the U.S., cheese-aging rooms had to be kept sterile. Mold cultures, the most typical being Penicillium candidum, were bought and applied in modern, controlled circumstances. Rosemary twig ash was replaced by deactivated charcoal purchased from medical supply companies.

After adapting the recipes in the U.S., Chenel formed Laura Chenel’s Chevre in 1981. Chenel developed a specialty line that included fresh cheeses in olive oil, fresh logs of the spreadable chevre and the mold-ripened discs, ash-coated variants. There were also the hard, aged shepherds cheeses that goat farmers made to endure long trips or to see them through winter milk shortages.

None of the cheeses were well-known in America. They didn’t travel well. Cheese makers compare them to fruit, because they keep ripening. If San Franciscans had tasted imported versions of these perishable cheeses before Chenel adapted the recipes for California, the chances were good that the “fruit” was rotten.

The appearance of Chenel’s local, fresh cheeses created a sensation, one captured in the 1982 “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,” which contained nine goat cheese recipes--everything from the now classic baked goat cheese with garden salad to chevre with baked garlic and peasant bread.

In 1993, Chenel’s business had grown so much, she took over a large cow dairy on the Napa-Sonoma border. There she keeps a herd of 500 goats and runs a dairy that imports additional milk from all over the state. The success was considered unseemly by some of the original 1970s Bay Area goat set. But fellow pioneer Chris Twohy brushes the grumblings aside. “As far as I’m concerned, she deserves tremendous credit for popularizing goat’s cheese,” he says. “I’m a fan.”

A New World Shepherd

Twohy also got a goat in college. Raised in suburban Palo Alto, he did a turn at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “got the ecology bug” and transferred to UC Davis to study renewable natural resources and crop science. “I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any land, so I got a goat,” he says. “I got kicked out of town because I was keeping a goat in my yard.”

After a brief time in Sebastopol, Twohy and his wife, Jan, moved north to Lakeport, a remote farm east of Ukiah in the mountains of Lake County. There they became old-fashioned subsistence farmers, even growing their own hay. They built their own house at the edge of an old walnut grove, equipped with the named the Yerba Santa Dairy, and assembled a herd of 65 goats.

Aside from buying in the odd pedigree buck, they now keep a gritty herd of crossbreeds, which they run on the hillside chaparral. The goats come back for milking, he says, along with “love and hay.”

Originally, their milk went to the health food industry and to Chenel’s cheese business. But in the early 1980s, Jan began making cheese, which Chris takes to three local farmers markets and sells by mail order. Far and away the best of these is an aged, hard cheese called Alpine Shepherd.

Unlike the fresh and mold-ripened discs, rennet is added to the milk for this cheese. It causes a stronger contraction of the milk proteins, creating a tighter curd, which will then be cut to release the water, bagged, drained, pressed and aged for as long as 10 months to create a dry, hard wheel. It does not want to age much longer, says Twohy.

The finished cheese is poignantly rustic, with imprints of knotted cheese visible in the sides. Inside, it has the granular texture of an aged parmesan. The flavor is nutty, strange, delicious and ideal for grating over asparagus.

Rare and Perfect

Though the Twohys are the most old-fashioned of the California goat cheese makers, their operation is not the smallest. That distinction goes to Rex and Barbara Backus, transplanted Angelenos who moved to Napa in 1972, and bought their first goats from then-19-year-old Jennifer Bice. Ten years ago, Barbara Backus opened a tiny licensed cheese plant next to the house and named it Goat’s Leap.

Bice praises Barbara Backus as the most fastidious, analytical and eerily talented of the California goat cheese makers. Others call her a perfectionist, by which they mean “prickly.” It takes eating rival versions of the same sort of cheeses that she makes to appreciate her touch.

Backus’ mold-ripened Goat’s Leap cheeses are small, perfectly formed, and sold by a handful of retailers. Backus doesn’t make enough cheese to lose track of it, and risk the fate of so many carelessly handled farmhouse cheeses: left to rot in open display cases.

Large dairies can and do stagger breeding to keep milk flowing and cheese production going year round. But getting out to kidding pens in the middle of the night and maintaining the generational divides so important for managing classes of goats becomes so difficult that goat milk production typically falls off by 50% in the winter. The Backuses, like the Twohys, don’t even try to produce winter milk, and let their goats go dry in November and December. “People said ‘Oh, your customers will forget you,’ ” says Backus. “The opposite happened.”

Another of the pioneers is Mary Keehn, whose operation in McKinleyville is so far north, it’s practically in Oregon. She caught her first goat in the 1970s from a semiwild herd kept by her landlord to keep scrub down around a dairy farm. “That was Hazel,” she says, her voice warming as she recalls the name of her first goat.

After Hazel, Keehn was hooked. She went into goat breeding, then showing and in 1983, opened a cheese plant, Cypress Grove Chevre. The signature cheese of this dairy is the ash-coated Humboldt Fog. The idea for the cheese occurred to Keehn on the airplane home from a trip visiting goat dairies in Provence.

In the course of developing the business, she sold her goats and began buying in the milk from five local goat dairies. She is about to move to a new farm, buy a herd of goats and expand into an operation along the lines of Chenel and Redwood Hill.

The Goats of Los Angeles

Fittingly enough, in Los Angeles, the goat milk commutes between goat dairy and cheese making room, a freeway ride between Chino and Ojai. It was not always thus. In the mid-1990s, Emily Thomson was an Ojai market gardener growing fancy salad greens. But the lettuce and herbs were phased out after she spotted a herd of goats near her farm.

She began carrying milk up the road 10-gallon cans to experiment with cheese-making. She then “read every manual” she could find, designed and built a cheese plant, and began making strictly simplest, most voluptuous of fresh cheeses, fromage blanc, fresh chevre, chevre with pepper corns, yet another with Provencal herbs.

Her customers included Campanile chef Mark Peel. Eventually, she got her own goats, which she boarded at a Chino dairy, and arranged to have the milk shipped to her. But two years ago, tricky logistics and lease problems abruptly shut the business. Then just as suddenly, two months ago, she reopened the plant with a new partner, Alan Clammer, and reappeared in farmers markets, again with those quivering fresh chevres.

“I’d like to move to aged cheeses,” Thomson says. That seems to be the typical course goat cheese-makers take. However, one can only hope that she does not leave the fresh ones behind. She not is only Southern California’s only artisanal chevre maker; she is also the only one in the state with the energy and commitment to make this simplest, freshest cheeses, then to rush them to market every week.

How Thomson will fare when the summer and autumn milk begins to dry up, and whether her cheese will remain in markets, is unclear. She’s had supply problems in the past, she says. Chino dairyman Johnnie de Yong says that she’s his “No. 2 priority,” after supplying milk to Trader Joe’s, but warns that he has “seasonal problems like everyone else.”

A good selection of respectable chevres will still be in stores in the winter, including Redwood Hill’s and Chenel’s. But they will be different than summer cheese, says Redwood Hill’s Jennifer Bice. At least some of it, possibly a lot of it, will be made from frozen curd.

“Nobody wants to admit using frozen curd,” says Bice. “We try to only make fresh chevre. But to get through the winter, we do freeze some and we do mix fresh and frozen together. The flavor is not tremendously affected. The thing that does happen is it’s a drier more crumbly cheese. Fresh chevre is very spreadable, very creamy. A frozen chevre product is going to be drier and crumbly.”

Freezing curd is not a California aberration. The French do it. It can produce a very decent cheese, just not those famously delicate ones. It is intended only to tide us over until the next summer when the figs are ripening, kids are suckling and the California is once again flush with summer milk.