In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. Last week’s winner was Bonnie Karoly!
Aah, the Loire valley. This region of Central France– also known as the “Garden of France”–is a dreamscape in the mind of any cheese aficionado. For some, the name conjures visions of historic chateaus and rolling vineyards–for me, it’s beautiful salads adorned with grilled slices of chèvre, and petite balls of goat cheese with fuzzy, wrinkled rinds that look like brains.
Some of the world’s best and most famous goat cheeses hail from this valley. As the story goes, when the Saracens (invaders from North Africa) marched on Tours in the 8th century and were defeated at Pointiers, they left behind both their goats and the expertise for making cheese from their milk. Goat dairying evolved into a deep local tradition, and today these tiny villages dotting the banks of the Loire river produce six world-famous AOC goat cheeses: Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher, Valencay, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Chabichou de Poitou, and Crottin de Chavignol.
Most of the French chèvres that you’ll find in American cheese shops hail from here. They’re typically very small, semi-soft and surface-ripened, some with white or grayish-blue rinds, some rubbed in ash. The characteristic rind comes from a mold called Geotrichum candidum, which works to de-acidify the cheese’s surface, making it easier for different molds, yeasts and bacteria to proliferate. The ash sometimes rubbed on the outside of Loire chèvres serves a similar purpose, neutralizing the acidity and paving the way for colonization from the surrounding environment. Over centuries, Loire cheesemakers have perfected their craft, harnessing the delicate, sensitive power of Geotrichum and making a beautiful range of chèvre cheeses.
I’ve already explored the historic dominance of the cow in American cheesemaking; like with sheep dairying, goat dairying lacks a deep tradition in this country. But a with a trip to even the most generic of grocery stores today, it’s easy to see how rounds and logs of fresh, creamy chèvre have made their way into the mainstream. It’s all happened in the past couple of decades, and it’s the Loire valley chèvres that have inspired it. And it was a group of ladies– such as Capriole Goat Cheeses, Inc cheesemaker Judy Schad– who brought these Loire Valley cheeses to prominence and translated this local French tradition into a prominent American one.
Judy lives in Greenville, Indiana, where she’s raised goats and made farmstead cheeses since 1976. Originally a city girl, she opted for a more rural lifestyle and after studying cheesemaking with Letty and Bob Kilmoyer, former owners of Westfield Farm in Hubbardston, MA, decided to move out to the country, get some goats, and practice cheesemaking in her kitchen. She was a true renegade; in the 1970s there was hardly any precedent for American goat cheesemaking to build off of, and Judy found herself a woman artisan cheesemaker in a profession that was almost uniformly male-dominated and industrial. “I can tell you, those first early cheeses were so bad,” she recalls with a healthy dose of humor, describing how she went to Goat Association meetings and hid her cheese under the table out of embarrassment.
Knowing that it was important for the cheese to grow a rind, Judy and many of her fellow cheesemakers usedPenicilium, one of the few molds available at the time. “We just wanted it to grow a white mold,” she recalls, “we used the Penicilium mold because that’s what held up and that’s what was available.” She initially used it in her Wabash Cannonball cheese, a small, 3-oz, ash-covered, semisoft chèvre, which helped her gain widespread recognition with a Best in Show award at the ACS competition in 1995.
A turning point in Judy’s cheesemaking career occurred in the late 1990s, when she was invited to be a judge at the International Goat Association meeting in Sainte Maure, a village in the heart of the Loire Valley. She spent the competition tasting local chèvres and was blown away. “I tasted those cheeses, and I thought, ‘what is going on here?’,” she recalls, “and it was the rind. It was not that mushroomy Penicilium that makes a little overcoat on the cheeses–it was sweet, and musky, and ahh, I just thought ‘this is why I’m making goat cheeses’.”
Deciding that her Penicilium bloomy rind was too big for her small Wabash Cannonball cheese, she instead opted to follow Loire Valley tradition and use Geotrichum mold–the mold responsible for that characteristic wrinkly overcoat–instead. This proved to be a challenge: not only is the mold more sensitive and delicate to cultivate, commercial strains were completely unavailable in America. So Judy connected with microbiologist Noella Marcellino, also known as the ‘Cheese Nun’, an expert on Geotrichum. Together Judy and Noella cultivated it by harnessing naturally-occuring strains present in Judy’s Indiana cave. Slowly but surely, Judy was able to transition Wabash Cannonball into a more authentic Loire-style chèvre using Geotrichum. Although it was more volatile and difficult to use, it was also lighter and allowed her cheeses to breathe. “I just fell in love with the Geotrichum,” says Judy, “and I think maybe most of America didn’t agree with me… but you know what? Let them not agree, it’s okay–I think it’s the perfect rind for little goat cheeses, and in the Loire Valley, when I tasted it, I knew why the French cheeses were so different than what we were doing over here.”
When I talked to Judy about the development of Wabash Cannonball, her determination and ability to adapt left me incredulous. When I asked why she couldn’t have simply ordered Geotrichum strains from Europe, she offered me a reality check. “Listen, sweetheart,” she said, “life was different.” Indeed, as difficult as it might be for American cheesemakers today to access all of the equipment and cultures they need from Europe, it was infinitely more difficult in the 1990s, before hardly anyone was making artisan cheese in America. Judy recalls a trip to France with fellow cheesemaker Mary Keehn (of Cypress Grove) in the early 1990s and shopping for the cheese moulds and trays that she still uses today. “There was one on every corridor… it was like going to Target! We were just beside ourselves, because you couldn’t get your hands on any of this stuff. [In America] we had maybe 3 or 4 individual moulds in available in these sizes, and the rest of it had to come from France, and that was a big deal for small cheesemakers to try and bring those things in by themselves.”
Since the 1990s, a lot of things have changed in the artisan cheesemaking world. Now American versions of Loire Valley chèvres dot cheese counters all over the country, distributors make it easier for small cheesemakers to source equipment from abroad, and Judy has become somewhat of an icon, an inspiration to young and confused cheesemakers like me. But she’s still learning and adapting her cheeses. “We made-do a lot,” she says, “and we still do. Sometimes I still feel like I’m cooking in my kitchen, and flying by the seat of my pants here.” To me, it’s both scary and exciting to know that even veteran cheesemakers continue to meet new challenges. It proves that cheesemaking is a lifelong adventure. Thanks to ladies like Judy who fought so hard against the odds to make their cheeses stand up to the European masters, I have a little more confidence in what’s possible.