SANTA ROSA, Calif. — One doesn't order just plain old goat cheese these days. One orders chevre, if you can remember to pronounce it properly.
Americans who do not realize that in the French language the re in chevre has a tonsillar, guttural trill, like a bird's, call it "shev err," "shev era" and "shev," thinking they are imitating the French pronunciation. It's pronounced "shev (trill) hruh," for reasons never explained by my seventh-grade French teacher. And it's a high-brow, rather snobby little cheese, even if it doesn't mean to be.
It's just that American food snobs, whose numbers these days have seemingly grown to include practically the entire population of the United States, have picked up on this strangely tart, tangy cheese and have adopted it as one of their in foods. These food groupies seem to take great pleasure going around restaurants and markets fancying themselves as goat cheese experts, uttering, "shev . . . shev . . . shev (or whatever)," in voices loud enough for everyone to hear. In other words, humble chevre has become a bicoastal big gun.
It's almost embarrassing to attribute the popularity of a single, highly visible in food to one person. But in the United States, one individual can probably be credited. She's Laura Chenel, a former waitress who found the "key" to her livelihood and passion for work in goat cheese. Now goat cheese is considered a boutique food, which has been delighting gourmet cooks and discerning diners for about a decade.
It all started back in the early '70s when Chenel and her husband (now divorced) decided to do what many ecology-conscious young people were doing at that time--going back to the land, growing their own food, raising their own animals. It seems that the goats on Chenel's farm were taking over because of Laura's affection for these elegant, docile animals. "Once you have a goat as a pet, you become as attached to it as you would a child," she said.
Although goats give only three quarts of milk a day compared with 20 quarts from cows, there was enough milk on Chenel's farm to waste. "It seemed a shame to waste good food, and I always felt that there had to be a way to make use of it." Well, she did. A friend offered Laura some chevre . French goat cheese. High demand and scant supply makes French goat cheese a coveted luxury by any standards. (Goat cheese constitutes only 4% of the total cheese production in France, but accounts for two-thirds of the world's goat cheese supply.)
"Well, that transported me. That was it. That was the key to what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make goat cheese," Chenel said.
Chenel spent a year trying to figure out how to get started. "I took a job at Rouge et Noir, the cheese factory, to learn how to make cheese but soon discovered that only the men made cheese. The women packed cheese. And that was frustrating."
Finally, Chenel stumbled on a French publication on goat cheese making and spent three months translating it. Then she decided to travel to France to see firsthand how goat cheese was made. "I spent three months living with French families. I not only learned how to raise goats and make cheese, I learned that each farmer made cheese in his particular style. No two were the exactly the same," she said.
Back at home, Chenel set up a cheese plant in a stone basement, taking hand-made cheese to stores and restaurants to sell. "The response was incredible," she said.
Soon, restaurateurs around the country were coming to Chenel for goat cheese, with the media, eager for new news, following at their heels. "I was sitting in my little house asking myself: 'What's all this attention about? What's the big deal?' It took me a year to realize that there was a story there."
There was a story there, indeed. California Chevre, Chenel's company, is the largest producer of chevre in the country, providing 60,000 pounds of cheese last year. Since Chenel's initiation of American-made goat cheese, there are now at least 20 licensed imitators, friends among them, in clear view. Each week 2,000 to 2,400 gallons of milk go into the production of boutique chevre at Chenel's factory.
Although only in the budding stage of development, Chenel has instituted what could be considered the beginnings of a goat cheese industry, by getting her milk suppliers to improve sanitation and smooth the flow of milk yearlong. Whereas cows are receptive to bulls any time of the year, thus assuring a continual supply of milk throughout the year, the she-goat will accept the he-goat only in the autumn, thereby cutting down supplies in winter months during pregnancy. Chenel has gotten her milk suppliers not only to increase their supplies of milk once wasted, but to change the goat's milking cycle to provide milk during the dead winter months. "I really don't know where all this is leading."
We'll give her one guess.