Posted by: oysterculture | April 18, 2009

Seasonal Cheeses: Goat and Sheep

When I attended my cheese school classes at the San Francisco Cheese School, I learned that goat and sheeps cheese were seasonal, and that fact surprised me.  Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did.  I suspect it did because sometimes I feel so far removed from the source of my food, on any given day, I can find feta in any market in my neighborhood, along with countless other varieties.  In any event, I promptly forgot it, only to be reminded on a recent trip to the Harley goat farm in Pescadero, CA and an article in the Oreganian talking about this very fact.  

The reason the cheese is seasonal is that lambs and sheep only have young seasonally (twice a year), and they only lactate to feed their young.  Once the young are weaned, no more milk production until the next season.  Ah, you’re catching on – lactating is the means by which we get the milk for making all that wonderful cheese.  

Pescadero Goat Farm

Pescadero Goat Farm

The annual milking season for sheep is only seven to nine months.  Cows breed year-round ensuring a constant milk supply so there is no seasonality associated with cow’s milk cheese.  But sheep and goats are seasonal; they naturally breed from late summer into fall as days become shorter.  Pregnancy lasts five months and lambing and kidding occurs from late winter into spring.

a whole lotta goodness

a whole lotta goodness

Generally, lactation cycles are seven months for sheep and ten months for most goats.  Milk volume drops off towards the end of the cycle, ceasing in the winter.  This dry period allows the animals, and by association, the cheese makers to have a well deserved rest before the process resumes in February.  Farmstead cheesemakers have no free time once this season begins, this intense work really shows they are in this business for the love of their craft.  The animals are milked twice daily, and cheese production: ladling, curing, packaging is done by hand.   

Two components of milk are fat and protein (casein), together are referred to as “milk solids.”  Solids concentration is highest in the weeks immediately following birth and toward the end of lactation when milk is less abundant but more concentrated. This means the richest, creamiest cheeses will be in spring and fall.

Haley's Goat Farm

Haley's Goat Farm

Milk reflects what the animals eat. Spring milk hints at the pasture and woodland forage, with bright and grassy flavors. Cheese made from summer milk, though less rich, contains floral qualities from the variety found in the summer.  Fall milk is back to grassy, herbal flavors from months of pasture and woodland grazing, and winter milk is dense and hearty with nutty flavors from dry or fermented fodder.

Before buying cheese, you should be familiar with a few terms you are bound to encounter. “Artisanal” cheese is made by hand, usually in small batches from milk generally comes from a community or cooperative of farms.  Cheese made in this fashion typically has a more consistent taste as the differences between farms are averaged out.  “Farmstead” artisanal cheeses are made from milk “donated” by the animals on the farm – so milk is from the same herd.  Cheese taste may vary from year to year assuming that the diet differs on which the animals graze.  Most aged artisanal cheeses are “raw milk.”  Many cheesemakers believe raw milk brings depth and individuality to the finished cheese.  Cheese mongers will say that there is a difference between raw and pasteurized – not that one is better – just different, and it comes down to personal taste.  US federal law requires that all raw milk cheeses be aged at least 60 days, during which enzymatic changes occur that inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the milk.  Anything younger must be pasteurized.  European and other nations’ laws are different, so taste varies between cheese in the US and elsewhere.  One theory is that in the US, pasteurization, is a flash method, and the milk is quickly brought up to an extremely high temperature for a brief amount of time.  This is done to maximize the quantity of milk going through the process.  However, some experts say that by slowing the process down and slowing raising the temperature to a lower number but for a longer period, the change in taste might not be that extreme.

In early spring, fresh, un-aged cheeses appear, with tangy flavors and textures ranging from fluffy to creamy. Think of ricotta, chevre and fromage blanc. (Note: these cheeses are relatively easy to make at home)  There is a reason they pair so well with the spring bounty.  Next are the soft-ripened and surface-ripened cheeses, tasting of spring grass and sweet milk that include brie and other bloomy white rind cheeses.   

If you buy an aged cheeses, remember if a raw milk cheese is made in April, it will not arrive in the shops until at least  June, depending on length of aging.  Check out the same cheese aged to different degrees; a cheese aged a year or more has nutty, earthy flavors.  I was blown away the first time I had an aged gouda, especially when compared to a fresher version.  It was like tasting two entirely different cheeses.   

Thanks to the newspaper article in the Oregeonian by Peg Chiarpotti, a Portland freelance writer, here’s a great list of US cheeses to enjoy along with notations of the times they are at their best (some may be found year round). The fresh cheese are available in the spring, and the aged are found in the fall and winter.

Black Sheep Creamery:
fresh cheese, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Ancient Heritage:
Valentine / spring, fall

Cypress Grove:
fromage blanc / spring, fall
chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Cowgirl Creamery:

fromage blanc / spring, fall
St. Pat / spring

Fraga Farms:
organic chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Jacobs Creamery:
mascarpone / spring, summer
cream cheese, plain and flavored / spring, summer
ricotta / spring, summer

Juniper Grove:
fromage blanc / spring, fall
fresh chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall
surface-ripened chevre / spring, summer

Monteillet:
Mejean / spring
Cardabelle / spring
Le Roi Noir / spring
chevre / spring, fall
Larzac / spring, fall

Oregon Gourmet Cheese:
raw milk camembert / spring-early fall

Pholia Farm:
Wimer Winter / late winter-early spring
Hillis Peak / fall-spring
Elk Mountain / winter, spring

River’s Edge:
flavored chevre tortas / spring-fall
Confetti Moons / spring-fall
Sunset Bay / fall-spring
St. Olga / spring-fall

Rollingstone:
chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Willamette Valley Cheese Co.:
Perrydale / spring, fall
Borenkaas / spring, summer

Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese:
Willapa White / spring, fall
ricotta / spring, fall
Fresh With Ewe / spring-fall

Cheese to look forward to
Alsea Acres:
fromage blanc / late spring, fall
ricotta salata / summer
feta / summer
flavored chevre tortas / summer

Ancient Heritage:
Scio Heritage / late spring, fall
Rosa / summer-early winter

Black Sheep Creamery:
Mopsy’s Best / late spring, summer

Cowgirl Creamery:
Pierce Point / fall, winter

Fraga Farms:
organic feta / summer
organic goat cheddar / summer

Estrella Family Creamery:
Killeen / summer
Old Apple tomme / late spring, summer
Bea Truffled / late spring-fall
Vineyard tomme / winter (very limited)
Jalapeno Buttery / winter

Larkhaven Farm:
Rosa Rugosa / spring-fall

Monteillet:
Causse Noir / fall, winter

Juniper Grove:
Tumalo tomme / fall, winter

River’s Edge:
seasonal crottin / late spring-winter

Pholia Farm:
Covered Bridge / late spring-early summer

Rollingstone:
Chevre Late Harvest / winter

Rogue River Creamery:
Rogue River Blue / fall, winter

Tumalo Farms:
Nocciola / late fall, winter
Truffleur / winter

Willapa Hills:
Ewe Moon / summer, winter

Some European cheeses:

Appenzeller (Switzerland): winter, spring

Camembert de Normandie (France): late fall-early spring

Gruyere (France): fall, winter

Manchego (Spain):
summer, winter

Pont L’Eveque (France): summer, fall

Roquefort (France): fall, winter

Stilton (England): fall, winter

I do not know about you, but knowing my cheese is seasonal, and knowing the reason why makes me feel more connected to my food and environment.  I have a renewed appreciation for my cheeses as a result.

Chocolate – Goat Cheese Fondue with Fresh Fruit:

From Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials – makes 2 cups

  • 16 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 8 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • ½ c + 2T heavy cream
  • 8 oz fresh goat cheese
  • strawberries and bananas for dipping

Combine chocolate, cream and cheese in medium sized heavy sauce pan.  Cook over low heat stirring constantly until chocolate has melted, transfer to fondue pot and serve with fruit.  Enjoy!

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Responses

  1. I didn’t know that about goats and sheep, but I do love raw milk cheeses. Your list with dates is a great resource. Thanks for the info!

  2. Yum, goat cheese. I’m not sure if I’ve had sheep’s cheese yet.

    Thanks for putting that list of cheese. I’ve got to broaden my list to more than just the basic stuff. I know there’s tons I’d love to try, except for the maggot cheese. lol.

    Nice fondue recipe.

  3. Bread + Butter I figured I should get a post up to counteract people’s reaction to the maggot cheese post. You’ve probably had sheep’s cheese and did not know it.

  4. I never knew you could do choc fondue with goat cheese, but it sounds incredible! I think I mentioned in my blog that goat cheese is my fav cheese, and cheese whore that I am I LOVED this post!

  5. I am absolutely going to Pescadero and the Harley goat farm next time I’m in town. No trip to cheeseboard pizza is complete without a stop at Cheese Board next door! It’s amazing how different the “same” cheese tastes depending on the little nuances like what a goat was fed. I won’t argue that pastuerized vs not is better or worse, but they do taste different. You’ve also reminded me about the seasons of cheese – I often forget about that…

  6. Adrienne,

    You will love the goat farm – you have to check out the special room above the tasting area – I think its magical with the rustic set up, and the views. I want to get a bunch of friends and fellow foodies there for an evening of wine tasting and dinner – they have a menu planned around their cheeses that sounds stupendous. They have a picture on their site but I do not think it does it justice.

    I’m with you on the pasteurization. Most experts I’ve spoken to are not inclined to say one is better than the other they’re just different. But for fresh cheese, I have to say I like unpasteurized the best. Ann Mendulson, she wrote Milk, said one of the reasons for the extreme difference in taste in the states is because we do the flash pasteurization bringing the temp up dramatically for only a handful of seconds – if the process involved a longer time at a lower temp the taste is not impacted nearly as much. Ah, so much to learn so little time…

  7. Burp Excuzme – Glad I could accommodate you, the chocolate plus goat cheese combination is incredible!

  8. You took classes at cheese school? How cool! What a great post on cheeses! We haven’t done our regular cheese tastings in a little while – it’s the season for travel and birthdays but we did have some cheese plates in London that I will be writing about. Thanks so much for the list of cheesemakers – I will be bookmarking for our future tastings!

  9. 5Star – the Cheese School is wonderful – I can only imagine how much you would like it given your love of cheese. When you come to SF, you should definitely see about taking a class. They are a lot of fun.

  10. I didn’t know any of that about goat and sheep cheese. I do love it, though. There are lots of new cheeses on your list that I have to try.

  11. Thank you for all the great tips and the list of cheesemakers- I didn’t know that goat and sheeps cheese was seasonal!

    Just had my first taste of Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove on Saturday. So delicious! Hubby preferred the Drunken Goat though!

  12. Hi Phyllis – Cypress Grove is delish. Drunken Goat is also an equally wonderful cheese, definitely not to be confused!

  13. Sheep’s cheese is the top in our list. Such delicious cheese.

  14. What a great post on cheese! I adore tasting cheese, but never searched it in detail like this review. Thank you so much.

  15. This post is very educational. I appreciate the work that went into this. You have enlightened me on many things. I didn’t know goat cheese was seasonal!

    One of the most fun activities on my recent trip to San Francisco is the visit to Cowgirl Creamery store at the Ferry Building where I parted way with so many dollar bills.

  16. Leela, I have the same trouble at Cowgirl – you go in and never leave empty handed. Don’t event think of going to the Cheese Board in Berkeley -I’d have to take up a collection for you.

  17. I love fromage blanc spread on my morning toast, with a little dollop of jam. It’s a nice change from cream cheese, and has fewer calories.

  18. I had no idea that goat and sheep cheeses were seasonal, as I thought the long aging processes would factor out the concept of seasons. But what you say here makes perfect sense, and I’m glad to learn this. Actually, I learned a great deal about the cheese-making process from your post! I like the idea of buying cheese according to the time of year that a goat, for example, is eating certain foods. I’m not sure my palate would pick up on those distinct flavor differences, but I’d love to experiment! It’s so cool that you have a cheese class you can take where you live. I’d love to enroll in one in Hawaii…if only there were any!

  19. Hi Sapuche, Glad to be able to reciprocate and be able to teach you something – I’ve learned so much from reading your post. With regards to the dearth of cooking schools in Hawaii – I suppose living in paradise has its price =) If you ever head to SF, let me know and I’ll get you connected to the school on the chance that you can get a class in.

  20. hahaha, I had no idea about the water buffalo either! I’ve learned so much from this post it’s not even funny. And you’re awesome for doing all these posts about CHEESE!

  21. Great post – I had never given much thought to seasonality and cheese, though now that I read it, it does, of course, make sense. We get so used to the standardised, homogenised supermarket fare that it’s easy to forget about wonderful seasonal variations.


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