GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

Spring 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall

ARTISANAL GOAT CHEESE: KNOW YOUR PRODUCER

Originally I wanted to call this column, "A Tale of Two Goat Cheeses." I have written previously in my newsletter about Judy Schad's wonderful Capriole goat cheese (http://www.capriolegoatcheese.com/), having developed a number of recipes using any number of her fabulous varieties, and even briefly visiting her facility in southern Indiana last August. In fact, I'm looking forward to the opening of the Green City Market to enjoy more of the fruits of her labors. When I last saw her in December, I was able to sample both her "Aperitifs," "Juliana," and "Crocodile Tears," three cheeses that had escaped my palate previously ... delicious! I recently found a piece of her fabulous Mont St. Francis that had become lost in my refrigerator ... it became a batch of spectacular cheese straws (http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesApril04.html). Whether you use Capriole cheeses in cooking, or just to nibble on as part of a cheese platter, they are amazing.

Capriole was going to be Goat Cheese #1. Goat Cheese #2 was going to be Prairie Fruits Farm, from near Champaign, IL. However, I realized that this artificial dichotomy didn't capture the true message I wanted to convey with this column: the wonder and value of actually knowing the artisans, farmers, craftspeople and producers of your foods and beverages. Knowing and understanding the path from field to table truly enhances one's appreciation of one's food, and that is what I wanted to convey when I visited Prairie Fruits Farm last November to gather data.

I first met Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell, owners and founders of Prairie Fruits Farm (PFF), at a Slow Food Chicago event that I had co-chaired a year ago. That was my first exposure to their amazingly refreshing fresh goat cheese; at that time they were not yet "approved," so only those of us behind the scenes were able to partake, but I was hooked. I enjoyed their cheeses again a few months later when we crossed paths at a dinner party, and yet again when I co-chaired the Slow Food Midwest Heritage Feast tasting event and we featured PFF cheeses (to great acclaim). So, I was excited that they graciously agreed to host me on a beautiful sunny November day last year. I drove south on Highway 57 from Chicago to Champaign, exited at the designated exit, and made my way to PFF. I found them in the barn constructing a new "cave" for aging cheeses. Despite the fact that they had a limited amount of time available to accomplish the task, Wes kindly offered to complete the task himself so that Leslie could give me a tour. I said these people were gracious, didn't I?

Leslie first showed me the actual cheese-making room. In order to maintain strict sanitation, booties must be worn in the room, and when cheese is actually being made, hairnets are required. I would learn this first-hand, because my visit coincided with "cheese making day." That would come later, though; the milk was being pasteurized, and so we would have to wait a while to actually make cheese. After abandoning our booties, Leslie led me through a work room to the milking room, and showed me how the goats walk through a doorway, and onto a ramp where they are mechanically milked twice a day; when I was there, the milking season was almost done. From the milking room, we went out into the barn ... to see the goats themselves! How great goats are! It had been years since I had such intimate interaction with goats, but I immediately was reminded of how smart they are. The herd is mostly the floppy-eared Nubians, but recently Leslie and Wes acquired a few La Manchas. We communed with the does (some quite pregnant), and the big Nubian buck, Everett Lee (stinky!), and the smaller La Mancha buck, Little Richie. The goats clearly were happy it was such a beautiful day.

When we finished communing with the goats, the milk had reached the FDA-required 145 degrees F, but it needed to stay at that temperature for 30 minutes, so Leslie suggested lunch. More graciousness! Wes and Leslie shared a wonderful organic mesclun salad with edible flowers, a delicious homemade tomato soup made the last of that season's tomatoes, and some local artisan bread that was perfect for holding the fresh chevre for both nibbling and for floating in the tomato soup. We had a bit of locally made chambourcin wine with a bit more bread and some of PFF's "banon." Chambourcin is a French hybrid red grape that grows well in Illinois and is being used to make some interesting wines; this one, produced by Alto Vineyards in Champaign, and used to flavor PFF's version of a banon: fresh goat cheese wrapped in either mulberry or sycamore leaves that have been soaked in the chambourcin, and then tied and aged for a few days, or even weeks.

After lunch, we made cheese! We were making a batch of camembert (Leslie had shown me some of her earlier camembert, which were "blooming" and aging in clear plastic boxes to maintain high humidity for the molds; the boxes were stacked on shelving in their guest bedroom. Cheese varieties differ based on their milk types, the molds present, the amount of aging, and other variables. Leslie is considering creating a couple other cheeses in addition to her fresh goat cheeses (plain, herbed, peppered and with calendula flowers, in rounds, pyramids, and in tubs), banons and camembert; specifically, she wants to make a grating cheese with raw milk, aged for about six months, and a roquefort-style bleu; I'm excited.

Anyway, we adjourned to the cheese-making room, donning our sanitary booties and hairnets. Leslie checked the temperature of the milk: she explained that she used four thermometers to ensure that the milk was kept at 145 degrees F for 30 minutes (this batch had actually stayed at that temperature for 40 minutes). Leslie opened the drain on the vat to release the hot water in the sleeve (pasteurizer jacket) surrounding the milk canister; once emptied, she refilled the pasteurizer jacket with cold well water to lower the temperature to 80-90 degrees F. She then opened the canister itself, carefully removing all of the components to avoid breakage. Once removed, it was time to add the culture. She purchases her cultures from a dairy supply house in Madison, WI (I looked at the catalog ... there is something surreal about looking at page after page of listings for mold spores!). She mentioned that the culture she uses for fresh chevre consists of several Lactobacillus species; the process requires 8.5 to 9 hours for the bacteria to produce sufficient lactic acid to coagulate the proteins to form curd. For the camembert, Leslie explained that she adds Geotrichum candidium, another bacterium that enhances the performance of Penicillium candidum (the mold that gives camembert its distinctive qualities) by creating the proper chemical environment for the mold to take over.

After adding the spores, Leslie turned on the agitator in the vat of heated milk to begin distributing the spores prior to adding the rennet (a requisite for camembert). Rennet comes from the stomachs of calves and kids (something vegetarians need to know). It comes in small bottles, and is used in the proportion of 1.5 t to 12 gallons of milk. It's also highly photo-sensitive, and must be kept out of the light; Leslie uses aluminum foil to protect her rennet and extend its life. While the molds contribute the flavor of the cheese (along with the innate flavor of the milk), rennet is a coagulant that separates the milk solids from the whey by causing the proteins in the milk to clump, forming curds. The agitator helped to evenly distribute the rennet, allowing even and complete clumping. This is where failures can occur, Leslie explained; for example, improper cooling of the milk, irregular curd formation and general graininess indicate inferior production methods and technique.

After the rennet was added and distributed by the agitator, Leslie removed the agitator, but not before giving it just a wee extra stir as her "personal" touch. Now it was time to close the vat and let the curds accumulate. While we waited, Leslie explained that she wouldn't be testing the acidity of the whey for the camembert as she does for fresh chevre. We also set up a draining rack with 4" high, 4" diameter rounds of polyurethane plastic pipes set out onto screens. Leslie pointed out that these were 4" rounds, and that camembert in France typically is formed in 4.25"x4.25" or 4.5"x4.5" round molds.

It wasn't long before Leslie declared that the curds were ready to ladle into the arranged molds. She cautioned that it was crucial to minimize disturbing the curds in order to keep the cheese as light and fluffy as possible (she added that Nubian milk is exceptional for this particular quality of lightness). As the whey drained away from the curds in the molds, Leslie added a few more curds to the top of each mold to maintain consistency. I helped her rescue extra curds that had fallen outside of the molds onto the safety of the draining screen … when one realizes the work involved in this process, I had to agree that every single curd was precious!

We moved the rack aside to continue draining; the incipient cheeses would be allowed to drain for about 24 hours; during this time they are flipped twice and salted on one side prior to unmolding and being salted on the other side, and then moved to the above-mentioned plastic boxes to maintain the necessary high humidity. I helped Leslie clean the cheese-making room and sanitize it properly, and then made my enthusiastic purchases: one carton each of plain, peppered and herbed goat cheese, two banon (one with sycamore, one with mulberry), and two dozen farm fresh eggs … imagine my sadness that Leslie insisted her camembert were just a bit too young to be sold.

As I drove home, and again as I sampled Leslie's cheeses at home, and yet again as I served them and used them in different aspects of my Thanksgiving weekend feasts, I found myself thinking how much more I appreciated them because of my knowledge of, and involvement in, the process. I could almost taste Leslie and Wes' passion in the cheeses.

THIS is the purpose of this article. No matter how delicious a product is, be it artisanal goat cheese, a fine wine, or a ripe peach, on its own, it just tastes better when there is an understanding of what was required to bring it from farm to table. And it tastes better yet when you actually know the producers of the product. There is that personal touch, that camaraderie and conviviality inherent in the food when you remember the faces, the conversation, the explanation of how knowledge, experience, passion and even love were all put into the production of the delicacy you are enjoying, and enhance that experience.

Admittedly I have the opportunity to meet a lot of farmers, artisans and producers, for which I am truly grateful. However, if you frequent farmers markets and farm stands, spend some time talking with the sellers to learn more about the process behind the product. Don't monopolize these peoples' time, as it is their job to sell product, but in most cases, they are eager to share the story behind their delicacies. Give it a try.

I wanted to provide a recipe that would highlight Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheeses. I could list all sorts of pasta sauces or soufflés or similar preparations, which are all delicious using PFF goat cheeses. However, I've decided on one of the simplest recipes in my repertoire, not only because it highlights the goat cheese, but because once you master the technique, you can use it in hundreds, if not thousands, of applications.

BRUSCHETTA
First, a lesson on pronunciation: this word is pronounced (phonetically) 'broos-KET-tuh'; it is NOT 'broo-SHET-tuh. Secondly, in its simplest form, bruschetta is grilled or toasted rustic bread with extra-virgin olive oil and perhaps some garlic. Thirdly, once you have the grilled/toasted bread, you can top it with absolutely anything, and serve it warm or at room temperature. Let the following recipe be a starting point for many more culinary adventures.

Ingredients:

Bread: Use any rustic Italian or French loaf, any diameter, cut in 3/8" or ½" slices; sometimes I successfully use other breads, like a sourdough baguette or Georgian shoti or any other interesting roughly textured loaf.
Olive Oil: Use any flavorful extra-virgin olive oil that you like.
Garlic: Although traditional, I don't always use garlic if I want the flavor of the toppings to shine. Use raw cloves, peeled and cut in half lengthwise.
Topping: Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre, or similar.

Technique:

Grill the bread on any grilling device over low heat, or toast quickly under a broiler or in a toaster oven using medium high heat; I actually like to use a large dry cast iron skillet that I have heated on maximum heat for about 3 minutes; I place small rounds of baguette over the entire surface of the skillet and toast until the edges start to char … this MUST be monitored closely to prevent burning. After one batch of bread slices has been toasted, remove them to a warm plate and toast as many additional batches as needed. At this point you can bring in the garlic: take one of the clove halves, and rub it around the perimeter of the toasted side; if the bread is firm in the center you can try rubbing the garlic there, but you may end up with a broken bruschetta (to give credit, the trick of rubbing garlic only around the periphery of the toasted bread came from David Rosengarten's Taste program). When all of the bread has been toasted, drizzle or brush each round with a small amount of extra virgin olive (note: the olive oil goes on AFTER the toasting; do NOT toast the olive oil). At this point, if you are using large rounds of bread, cut them into smaller serving sizes. Using a bread knife, spread a portion of goat cheese onto each bruschetta. If desired, drizzle a bit more olive oil on top, and serve immediately, either as an appetizer on their own, or to accompany a delicious salad (see http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesJune03.html for ideas) or any type of soup (either on the side, or on top of the soup). Bruschetti can accompany pasta dishes, or you can top bruschetti with any pasta sauce instead of putting the sauce on pasta. The possibilities are truly endless.

I hope you'll try this technique and that you'll share some of your own experiments and applications with me at 773.508.9208 or email. Summertime is the perfect time to highlight the harvest bounty on simple bruschetta. I'd also like to hear about your outreach to farmers and producers … let's create a community!

 

BACK TO COOKING, FOOD & ENTERTAINING