Celine Watine celebrates the summer’s fresh bounties of goat’s cheese from the Loire Valley.
With summer around the corner, it’s now the season for fresh goat cheese! The Loire Valley in the west of France is not only well known for its beautiful castles and dry white wines, but also its large selection of soft goat’s cheese.
In the 8th century, a war was waged in the Loire Valley between the French army and Arabs from Spain. At that time, soldiers travelled with herds to ensure a steady food supply. When the Arabs were defeated by the French army, they left the country, abandoning their herds and thereby launching a new industry in the Loire Valley. For this reason, the region is known as the birthplace of goat’s cheese in France and remains France’s biggest producer of soft goat’s cheese.
Over time, each farm in the Valley created its own cheese using goat’s milk. That is why there are so many varieties of soft goat’s cheeses from this area in France. Not only did each farmer offer a unique flavour, but they were also very creative in their recipes and giving cheeses different shapes. Some resemble a small drum, others look like a pyramid, a log or even a crown. Originally farmers covered their cheese with charcoal ash to protect them from dust. Naturally, these techniques have evolved and cheese producers are now more stringent with hygiene standards but they continue the tradition and ashen their cheeses. The well-known Buche de Sainte-Maure and Valencay are both ashen cheeses. The ashes have another advantage: they enhance the blue moulds, which are typical in soft goat’s cheese, and develop the flavours.
On average, each goat produces between two to five litres of milk per day. This is considerably smaller than the quantities a cow produces, which ranges between 20 to 30 litres per day. The quantity of the milk explains the small size of the cheeses.
All of these artisanal cheeses are made with raw milk. The difference between artisanal and farm cheeses is that farm cheeses are made directly by the farmer who owns the goats. Artisan cheeses, however, are produced in a cooperative, continuing the tradition of respect of the old traditions with the milk collected from the farms of the area.
Soft goat’s cheeses have a short life cycle compared to other cheeses. For example, unlike hard cheeses that require a maturation process of several months, the small Crottin de Chavignol can be enjoyed after only two weeks. The soft goat’s cheeses are refined in cellars where the humidity is only 80 per cent, compared to cheeses like the hard Beaufort which requires up to 98 per cent humidity. Some consumers prefer soft goat’s cheeses when they are older and completely dry because their flavours are stronger.
As an avid fan of soft goat’s cheeses, I’ve always admired their fresh flavours and versatile qualities. They can be eaten alone, with a French baguette, or presented together on a platter to highlight the different shapes. Soft goat’s cheeses are also ideal for cooking. I recommend you make cheese on toast with a Buche de Sainte-Maure or a Crottin de Chavignol. Simply cut the cheese into discs, each one 1cm high. Place the discs on toasts and grill them in the oven for two minutes. For added flavour, add some drops of honey or rosemary leaves. Serve the toast on a green salad and enjoy this healthy dish with a glass of Sancerre!
Photo credits: Jean d’Alos