The recipe called for “crumbled goat cheese.” Now it may just be that I’m too literal, but how the heck are you supposed to “crumble” creamy goat cheese that comes in a sausage tube. Wouldn’t the term “squeeze” be more apropos?
Maybe they just mean feta. That is usually made from goat milk and is certainly crumble-able. But somehow I didn’t hear my raspberry vinaigrette salad made with fresh spring greens and herbs singing out for the strong, salty flavour of feta.
I was at wits end. With the increasing popularity of goat cheese recipes in all the current food magazines—there are three alone in the latest Bon Appétit—I was finding any new dishes either ending up with gooey, cheesy, toothpaste blobs, or tasting like a Greek salad. Maybe I needed a primer on cheese.
Cheeses can be split into two fairly distinctive groupings: fresh, unripened cheeses which include that soft goat cheese in the tube, as well as ricotta, cottage, and mozzarella; or ripened cheeses, which include everything from soft cheeses with rinds such as Brie and Camembert, firm cheeses like cheddar and Swiss, and hard grating cheeses like parmesan.
The process for both starts the same; milk is acidified, a starter culture is added, then rennet is added to cause coagulation, separating the milk into two components: solid (curds) and liquid (whey).
The Greeks claim responsibility for this discovery. They have been eating cheeses since Hercules was a lad. It is said that early herdsmen, who carried milk in sacks made from the stomachs of young goats or cows, found that their lunch beverage was constantly curdling. Eureka! Cheese was created.
They didn’t realize it, but they had just discovered rennet, an enzyme in the stomach lining of un-weaned goats and calves. This knowledge led to the manufacture of probably the most traditional of all Greek foods; feta cheese. (The Greeks are so possessive of this national treasure that they are attempting to get the important PDO [Protected Designation of Origin] placed on their product to separate out the pretenders.)
There are vegetarian options to the animal rennet originally used, including enzymes from plants such as Stinging Nettle, but when the label reads: “vegetable rennet” or “non-animal” it is usually referring to a microbial enzyme from a fungus. Most rennet used today is bioengineered by introducing the rennet gene into bacteria or yeast. I’m not sure if that is technically animal or not?
Once the curds are separated from the whey, they are put into moulds, or shaped by hand. The shapes of various cheeses are very much pre-ordained: cheddars and Swiss will be in large wheels; goat cheeses in pyramids, logs, or discs; the various shapes often of regional distinction.
Cheeses meant to be sold fresh, like chèvre frais (fresh goat cheese) and ricotta are only gently drained. Because they have an extremely high moisture content and are not aged, they are milder and sweeter than ripened, more mature cheeses, have a higher lactose content, and are highly perishable. They should be eaten soon after purchase and certainly after any vacuum packaging is removed. Some of the fresh cheeses are drained or pressed further to remove more liquid, and they will have a slightly firmer texture, making them better for slicing or crumbling. Capriny and fresh Mizithra are two goat cheeses like this. Boursin, an extremely popular appetizer cheese, is a cow cheese of this sort.
Fresh goat cheese will be pure white and have a delicate “goaty” or slightly tangy flavour. The term “chèvre,” the French word for goat is generally reserved for fresh, unripened, soft goat cheeses, such as the ones in the sausage tube or the lovely artisanal cheeses in plastic moulds with the edible flowers on top. These have become a very popular item on Vancouver Island from local farms.
As cheeses age, they will lose much of their moisture content, making them less perishable, and changing their colour —from caramel to oranges—, their texture —from soft to crumbly to sliceable to grate-able only—, and their flavour quality —from sweet to biting to sometimes even offensive!
Feta cheese is a soft, ripened goat (or cow or sheep) cheese that is allowed to age in a salty brine for a minimum of two months. As goat cheese ripens it becomes more “goaty,” a flavour sometimes referred to as “barnyard” or “pungent.” In fact, I had one aged goat cheddar that I swore must be “off” but on second bite, decided that it was just the goat flavour and on third and fourth grew to love it. Not everyone is a fan of goat cheese. Liking feta does not mean you like goat cheese, as the strong salty brine masks the true goat taste.
By knowing the age of the cheese you are using you can predict the degree of pungency and decide which would best suit your recipe. Just as a delicate fresh Montrachet might get lost among the kalamatas in a Greek salad, you wouldn’t want an aged Mizithra on a lighter salad.
With this new knowledge of goat cheeses, I attempted to find the right cheese for my raspberry salad, and found the white, creamy yet crumble-able Capriny right here in our village. It was perfect.
I also discovered that you can now find goat cheddar, Gouda, and mozzarella here. It seems that goat milk is everywhere. I am dreading the inevitable day when I see “Goat milk lattes!”
Goat milk and cheeses still contain lactose, although it seems that some people can tolerate goat lactose better than cow and there is less lactose in goat milk than cow milk. Most allergy resource sites will strongly warn that goat milk is not a suitable substitute for cow milk for anyone intolerant to lactose and especially for anyone allergic to milk proteins such as casein.