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The Goat Cheese Divas

Thank a small group of California women for one of the true gifts of summer


Laura Chenel, the Sonoma cheese maker, introduced California to fresh, French-style goat cheeses more than 20 years ago. But hundreds of years of French farmhouse tradition was not mastered overnight. To this day, these delicate cheeses refuse to conform to modern supermarket culture.

The luscious little pots of loose fromage blanc, the barely formed logs of chevre, the pucks and the pyramids retain their old-world characteristics. They remain as moody and perishable as fruit. Trickiest, they are stubbornly seasonal. They are never better than the time when goat keepers are catching and converting the flush of milk that follows spring kidding.

In other words, that season is now.

Learn about the seasonality of goat cheese, and so much else falls into place. It explains why the youngest, freshest ones, the cream cheeses and chevres, are traditionally partnered with the sweetest and ripest of summer berries. That's why the aged ones come wrapped in fig and grape leaves. That explains the marriage with walnuts. That explains the herb coatings, the goat cheese salads, the crostini.

These goat cheeses follow roughly the same range of styles of French cow milk cheeses, but the similarities end there. They will never match the richness of a double cream brie, or have the aging life of a mature Cheddar or Parmesan. But they have a summery charm all their own, a unique lightness, a subtle tang, an elegance that seems to trip along the palate an entire register above the flavors and textures of cow milk cheeses.

The explanation lies less in the cheese-making and more in the milk. Goat milk and cow milk are composed differently, says John Bruhn, director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at UC Davis. "The milk-fat globule in goat milk is more susceptible to breaking apart," explains Bruhn. "In goat milk, if you agitate it, you can get a flavor change. That also occurs with cow's milk, but it's not as pronounced."

Goat milk not only handles differently, it looks different, says Brandon Nelson, a food science lecturer at Cornell University. While cow milk cheeses are a buttery yellow, goat cheese is almost startlingly white. "In the goat, a lot of the carotene is converted to vitamin A," Nelson says, "so it has a very white milk and you get a glistening white chevre."

Twenty years into a steep learning curve with this shimmering, delicate milk, a network of Californian goat cheese makers stretching from Ojai to the Oregon border are just mastering how to make cheese from it. The most endearing thing about them, says UC Davis' Bruhn, is that they happened into it accidentally. "A lot of the people got goats because they liked them," he says. "Suddenly they had milk, and more goats, and they said, 'What can I do with this?' "

If fromage de chevre was still an exotic curiosity when this bunch got their goats in the late 1970s, goat milk wasn't. From the 1940s, the Central Valley had at least two dozen goat dairies. Big ones. Laurelwood Acres Dairy in Ripon had more than 1,000 goats in the 1950s and funneled the milk to a health food industry. It even had salesmen door-stepping doctors trying to get them to prescribe the milk as baby food.

Pinky Hawes' father started Laurelwood Acres after she was born allergic to cow milk. It saved lives, including hers, she believes, but the slightly burnt flavor during evaporation or ultra-pasteurization also gave the milk a reputation as a hard pill to swallow. However, the public loved the goats. They were the biggest draws at county fairs and 4-H shows, says Hawes.

"The Nubians with long ears, they were always the most popular because people thought they looked like dogs," she says. Hawes first spotted one of the early cheese-makers in a 4-H.

It was Jennifer Bice who arrived in Sonoma County from Los Angeles in the 1960s as a 10-year-old and was desperate to have farm animals. She immediately joined 4-H and started showing goats in fairs judged by Hawes. "We wanted cows, pigs and ducks," says Bice. "It was the goats that stuck."

By the 1970s, Bice was engaged to Steven Schack, an Angeleno who majored in psychology at Sonoma State University. "While he was studying, he got a few goats," recalls Bice. Once married, Bice and Schack took over her parents' farm in Sebastopol, formed Redwood Hill goat dairy and produced goat milk for the health food market. By the 1980s, they graduated to yogurt, and in the 1990s, to cheese.

Switzerland in Sonoma

Today, Redwood Hill could scarcely be more European in style. In fact, it feels distinctly Swiss. Laid out over a series of ledges down a Sonoma County hillside, goats caper in a series of parallel pens. Goats are kept in age groups, kind of like grades in schools. No prize for spotting the kid pen. That's the one with all the goats vying for control of the top of haystacks set out for them to climb. They have access to outdoors at all times. As pedigree breeding stock, they tend to have names like racehorses, say Redwood Hill Sequoia Selena.

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