Seasonal Flavours - Goat's Cheese

Food critic and cookbook author Rosa Jackson looks at this months seasonal food Goat's Cheese

The best goat’s cheese I ever tasted came out of the back of a truck. Not just any truck, but that of a chef who knows his suppliers intimately. Tasting distinctly of fresh mountain air and wild flowers, with not a hint of what I can only term goatiness, that humble-looking crottin changed the way I would look at cheese forever.

“I can’t live without that cheese,” I repeated insistently until the chef set up a rendezvous with the producer one Saturday at 7am, testing my determination. That day, I learned that Georges had come to France from Portugal in the 1970s to apprentice with a shepherd in the mountains behind Nice. When the shepherd was hospitalised after being stung by an entire hive of bees, 16-year-old Georges took over. In return he received his own goat, the beginning of a lifelong passion.

“I couldn’t go back to Portugal and leave my goat,” he told me, a logic that French immigration officials eventually had to accept. Since then, Georges has taught me most of what I know about cheese or, at least, most of what really matters. Each cheese has a season, reflecting the diet of the animals: that’s why goat’s cheeses, most of which age for a matter of days or weeks, taste best in spring and harder cow’s cheeses might reach their peak in winter, when they are a few months or even a couple of years old. Given the ready availability of goat’s and ewe’s cheese all year round, I was surprised to learn that goats naturally stop producing milk in the winter, while sheep do the opposite. Most importantly, I realised that treating the animals with respect and love Food critic and cookbook results in superior cheese.

Cheesemongers with their own cellars, which are not so common these days, also play a role in ripening cheeses to perfection and selling them at their peak.

For those unused to unpasteurised cheeses, goat’s cheeses can be the hardest to love. Particularly in winter, they can have an unmistakeable barnyard taste that doesn’t appeal to everyone (though, as with all strong flavours, there are aficionados). The older the cheese, the more concentrated its taste and the drier its texture, but fresh goat’s cheese can be as mild and light as ricotta. I sometimes eat it for breakfast – somewhat to Georges’ horror – with slices of fresh figs and a drizzling of chestnut honey. I also crumble it into salads, toss it with pasta and wilted spinach leaves, or whip it with a spoonful of pesto for an irresistible spread or dip. Fresh goat’s cheese grilled on toast and served with fris�e salad is a French classic, often found in caf�s (vegetarians should watch out for the bacon that often comes with it).

Among the goat’s cheeses that are aged a little longer, some of the best come from the Loire Valley. One of my favourites is the Sainte-Maure de Touraine, a cylindrical cheese that is often coated with ash. The straw through the centre consolidates this fragile cheese, which I like best when it’s a little creamy under the rind. Other cheeses to look for are the small, round Rocamadour from southwest France and the P�lardon from the C�vennes, west of the Rh�ne Valley. Georges’ extraordinary cheese is not so easy to come by, but it is sold from April to October at the Forville market in Cannes and at La Poulette in the Vieux Nice.

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Also In SeasonThe first sign of spring is bunches of slender pink radishes tipped with white, which are at their mildest and crunchiest at this time of year; their peppery leaves are edible too. Next come emerald broad beans in their fuzzy coats, and sugary peas neatly aligned in crisp cases. Both demand to be popped open and savoured on the spot. Perhaps the surest sign of spring, though, is asparagus, whose spears seem to reach for the sun from their mounds of earth. Green or white, each has its qualities, although the second requires more careful peeling and longer cooking. Don’t be afraid to choose the fatter stalks, which are prized in France. Their most natural – and luxurious – partner is morels, a wild spring mushroom with a spongy grey-brown cap and a slightly nutty taste.

MESCLUN WITH FRIED GOAT’S CHEESE AND HONEY-WALNUT VINAIGRETTE• 7�oz mesclun (200g)• 4 fresh goat’s cheeses • Salt, pepper and fresh or dried thyme, to taste • �/3 cup flour• �/3 cup breadcrumbs • 1 egg • 2 tbsp olive oil

VINAIGRETTE: • 1 tbsp sherry or Banyuls vinegar • Salt and pepper, to taste • 1 tsp honey • 1 tbsp walnut oil (or hazelnut oil) • 2 tbsp mild olive oil, or a little more to taste

Even Georges, the purist, approves of this recipe. Wash the mesclun and dry it well. Season the cheeses with salt, pepper and thyme. Place the flour, breadcrumbs and egg in three separate shallow bowls. Dip the cheeses in the flour, then in the egg, and finally in the breadcrumbs to coat them completely. Prepare the vinaigrette: whisk together the vinegar, salt and pepper. Add the honey, nut oil and olive oil, and whisk to emulsify. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Fry the goat’s cheeses for about 1 minute on each side, until golden. Toss the salad with the vinaigrette, saving a little to drizzle over the goat’s cheese. Serve the cheese with the salad and walnut bread.