Spring into Cheese
By Christine Hyatt
As we wind down what has been a harsher-than-average winter for much of the country, there are signs of spring popping up everywhere. This annual cycle is a magnificent thing to witness, as anyone who has an agriculturally based world view will tell you.
For those like me, who champion the hard work of farmers and cheesemakers, and celebrate the virtue and deliciousness of their efforts, I feel giddy each winter when the first posts of impending new babies show up in my news feed. I know it’s on when Pholia Farm’s goat-cam goes live with cheesemaker Gianaclis Caldwell Tweeting when a new arrival is imminent.
From my nice cozy house, I watch the weather updates and shiver seeing nighttime lows, knowing friends near and far will be busy all night midwifing their mamas-in-waiting, there to lend assistance when needed.
One of the newest approaches taken by many of the small goat dairies is to “milk through,” which means to breed the animals only once every few years. Milk production naturally dips in the winter, but with the right genetics, goats can produce for several years, reducing the number of pregnancies each milking doe experiences.
Of course, for any dairy-based business, this rhythm of life is what sustains and is the basis for cheesemaking for the year. Spring is a magical time to be a cheese lover, too. The first new cheeses of the year — fresh goat and sheep cheeses, ripened cheeses in all their glorious forms — are appearing in cheese shops and farmers markets.
Aged cheeses made during the grazing season last year are now reaching the peak of perfection, which many wedges acquire when approaching their first birthday. Spring berries and vegetables are inspiring a bit of lighter, fresher eating: the perfect complement to cheeses. Here are top picks to add to your cheeseboard this season.
The flush of spring milk from newly emergent grasses makes for some spectacular fresh or ripened goat cheese. Though you can now find fresh cheeses year-round, not so long ago, they were a seasonal treat after a winter milk hiatus as mamas-to-be create the next generation. To me, spring cheeses still feel extra special.
Because milk production reaches higher levels in spring, there is an abundance of high quality, tasty cheese to try.
Cheesemonger Sheri LaVigne of The Calf & Kid in Seattle shared her favorite spring treat: sheep’s milk yogurt and labneh — strained yogurt with a cheese-like consistency — from Glendale Shepherd in Washington. I realize these are not technically cheeses, but I say handcrafted fermented dairy products are kindred spirits to be celebrated. Sheep milk has a unique richness and a sweet edge that makes it unforgettable.
Both would be smashing alongside soon-to-ripen fresh strawberries or perhaps as part of an herb and shallot dressing for spring greens. Sheri has high praise for the seasonal treat made on Whidbey Island, calling it, “The best stuff I’ve ever had.”
Another spring selection is Enchante, a new Robiola-style cheese from my friends at Black Sheep Creamery in Chehalis, Wash. I’m just crazy for the nuanced flavors and thin rind of this soft-ripened, Italian-style cheese. Cheesemakers Brad and Meg Gregory are recently introducing this cheese to market, but based on their successful line of aged cheeses from their flock of 80 ewes, Enchante will be a cheese to seek out.
At the other end of the spectrum, cheeses made last spring and fall are approaching their prime, with extended aging concentrating and refining flavors from peak-season milk.
I’m always a fan of savory, complex bandage-wrapped cheddar, sweet and caramel-like aged Gouda, and nutty, melt-me Alpine-style cheese — Emmentaler, Gruyère, Comté, Fontina. All develop well rounded flavors at six months and are positively outstanding about one year of age when the crystalline structure is exquisite.
Whether you choose fresh or aged, spring cheese is a welcome treat; the warming weather is also something to savor.
Christine Hyatt promotes the wonders of fine cheese through food writing, recipe creation, food photography and video. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @cheesechick1.