“Where’s your goat cheese?”
I answer this question at least three times a day at work; my response is usually not immediately helpful to the person asking.
“Here is our goat cheese section in the cheese case, and over here we have two shelves of goat cheese on this wall. Is there a specific type you are looking for?”
You see, most of the people asking this question are looking for one thing, and their question is being driven by two misconceptions:
- The assumption that all goat cheese is Chèvre.
- The assumption that Chèvre is the only kind of goat cheese.
Two sides of the same coin, right?
But for the flip side, many people hunting for the soft, fresh goat cheese we call Chèvre are held spellbound at the thought that goat milk can be made into anything other than a soft, pillowy mass. Goat Brie? Goat Cheddar? Goat Gouda? MIND BLOWN.
The misunderstanding is as common as people thinking that Gorgonzola is different from blue cheese—it’s not; it is a type of blue cheese.
Not knowing these things—or misunderstanding them—is nothing for anyone to feel badly about. We should all consider ourselves lifetime learners and branch out to try new things and learn things we didn’t know—especially when it comes to food.
What it comes down to, in fact, is poor food education in the U.S. that has long been fueled by a lack of access to different kinds of food.
For all of the hundreds of varieties of sliced bread or soda or potato chips on the market, there have been relatively few cheese options available to U.S. Americans in most of recent history. Cheddar or “Swiss”? “Blue” or Gorgonzola? There you go.
The appreciation of brie-style cheeses is very recent for the larger part of the populace, and our collective desire for varieties (in plural) of artisanal cheeses is even more recent.
Let us not forget that goat cheese has only seen a place in U.S. markets over the past 20 years, give or take.
When Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove Chèvre), Allison Hooper (Vermont Creamery) and Judy Schaad (Capriole Goat Cheese) started their goat creameries in the 1980s, there wasn’t really a market for goat cheese, let alone for fresh Chèvre.
At last year’s American Cheese Society conference in Denver, the three sat on a panel discussion about “The Evolution of Artisan Cheese in America.” Although there is more to American artisan cheese than goat cheese, Keehn, Hooper, and Schaad represent the goat creameries that struggled to gain a following during a time when cow’s milk Cheddar and Swiss were monoliths of store shelves.1
Hooper said that convincing the bank to give her and her business partner, Bob Reese, a loan to make and sell French-style goat cheeses was difficult, as they wanted money for a business that didn’t yet have buyers.
She said a lot of creating that market involved convincing chefs that they needed the cheese for their menus (which was no easy task at that time). After eating the cheese in restaurants, consumers would then begin demanding it from their local markets.
Hooper, Keehn, and Schaad all said that cheesemongers have been integral to helping educate shoppers about their cheeses—from the milk type and recipe to the flavor profile and appearance of the cheese.
As a cheesemonger, it is my duty to fill the food education void as much as I can, in perhaps only a sentence or two of conversation.
Even if I know that a person really just wants a log of fresh goat cheese, I take the question literally (“where is your goat cheese?”) and point out that there are many types of goat cheese, adding that Chèvre is only one kind—and also that chèvre is the French word for goat, to help get the point across.
Any cheese can be made from lait de chèvre (goat’s milk), but in the common parlance of U.S. grocery stores, Chèvre—which is really just a shortening of the term lait de chèvre—refers only to the young, fresh stuff.
It is worth noting that not all soft, fresh goat cheeses are named Chèvre; for example, Fromage Blanc and Fromage Frais are two kinds of younger goat cheeses.
And to make things even more complicated, Chèvre does not have to be young. Chèvre can also refer to aged goat’s milk cheeses. (Trippy, right?)
According to the Oxford Companion to Cheese:
“Chèvre comes in a range of ages, textures, shapes, and flavors. It can be soft, young, and spreadable, or aged with more rind development and concentration of flavor. Often the name of the cheese gives an indication of its shape, and also where it is from, for example, Crottin de Chavignol or Boule de Quercy. Some other common shapes, in French, include buche, pave, Coeur, brique, lingot, cloche, rond, pyramide, and tomme” (163).2
Soft, fresh goat cheese is a Chèvre. But so, too, are Bucheron, Pave de Jadis, O’Banon, Humbug Mountain, and Bonne Buche. (And while the French tradition has definitely left its mark on this category of cheese–the name Chevre being foremost evidence of this–it wouldn’t be fair to leave out that other cultures have their own goat cheese recipes, too.)
What you can take away is this: soft, fresh goat cheese—the spreadable kind that comes in logs, medallions, and cups in the U.S. and is commonly referred to as “Chèvre” or “goat cheese”—is one member of the family of Chèvres, and only one type of goat cheese. At the store, you should ask for it as “fresh Chèvre” or as “fresh goat cheese.”
All Chèvre is goat cheese, but not all goat cheese is Chèvre.
And if you’re more confused now than when we started, I’ve accomplished my goal of helping you to question what it is that you are really looking for when you ask for “goat cheese” or “Chèvre.”
- Keehn, Mary, Allison Hooper, and Judy Schaad. “The Evolution of Artisan Cheese in America.” American Cheese Society Conference. Sheraton Denver Downtown, Denver. 29 July 2017. Panel discussion.
- Spira, Sarah. “Chèvre.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 163. Print.