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Whey cool

Cheese-making a slow pleasure

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True goat cheese connoisseurs debate whether summer or fall cheese is better, but most will tell you the best soft chèrve (French for goat) is eaten at the farm -- or at least close by. But on a crisp spring morning a few weeks ago, the farm came to Charlotte. Fleming Pfann, owner and goat cheese maker of the renowned Chatham County North Carolina farm Celebrity Dairy, conducted a cheese-making workshop for Slow Food Charlotte.

Among the cheese-maker novices included a few who expressed an interest in making goat cheese professionally; others were culinary professionals, local farmers, or simply people who liked to eat cheese. As the Slow Food members clustered around the diminutive Pfann in a kitchen at the Art Institute of Charlotte, Pfann assigned units to make either one of three varieties of soft goat cheese -- and a soft cow's milk cheese for good measure, a semi-soft cheese similar to a mozzarella, or a "sort of" cheddar.

Not all goat cheese comes in the soft roll, rolled in herbs or ash, so often sold in the grocery store cheese sections. Goat's milk can be made into a range of cheeses from cheddar to mozzarella and in shapes as varied as the complex-tasting, pyramid-shaped French Valençay (a favorite of Napolean) to the barrel-shaped Crottin de Chavignol by Chamaillard. Goat cheese of note also includes the Italian Caprini and the French Chabichou du Poitou -- which is as fun to say as it is to eat.

Caprine milk has become a popular substitute for those who are intolerant of bovine milk. Additionally, goat's milk is a "universal" milk donor reported Fleming. She sells some of her raw goat's milk to the North Carolina zoo.

Although the goat cheese varieties are wide-ranging, the cheese-making process is similar: heating the milk, coagulating the protein, separating the curd (coagulated protein) from the whey, and aging for added flavor and consistency (the cheddar takes 10 to 14 days).

What the aptly named Slow Food participants learned immediately was the process to make the firmer cheeses was, in fact, slower than the immediate satisfaction of the soft cheeses since heat and time separate curds from whey.

During the wait Pfann circulated the groups, visually checking pots, putting together a cheese press, and instructing her students to massage the whey from the curd in muslin cloth (cheesecloth is too porous for goat cheese). She explained that goat cheese has terrior, similar to wine, and tastes of the season. During summer, the goat's milk is brighter, grassier, perfect for cheeses used to dot salads or pizzas and a complement to super clean white summer wines; in fall the cheese becomes more complex and better paired with roasted beets or pasta. Last fall, one of her complex goat cheeses that won an award was a combination of summer and fall cheeses.

Pfann's dairy, which has been in operation since the 1980s, uses French farmstead (artisanal) techniques to produce cheese. Currently Whole Foods markets in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill carry her cheese, as do area farmer's markets. Additional Celebrity Cheese varieties are on Charlotte restaurant menus such as Sonoma Modern and at Ben and Karen Barker's Magnolia Grill in Durham.

Pfann is one of the many North Carolina farmers dedicated to sustainable agricultural and the return to taste: She supports the Slow Food movement. Small farms, such as Celebrity Farms, are growing in North Carolina partly due to a varied topography that, in some areas, precludes immense agribusiness farms, but also to the rising interest in both the stewardship of both natural and human resources and eating locally. This popularity of local food consumption is fueled by an interesting combination of an increasingly affluent community and an expanding immigrant population. Both these groups tend to frequent local farmers' markets and buy local produce.

Smaller farms are also conducive to raising goats; in fact, the American Dairy Goat Association, the national goat dairy registry, is located in Spindale, N.C. But, small dairies, especially those with goat herds, are finding it harder to navigate through the complexities of rigid government standards of sanitation in order to produce a commercial product. Currently the Carolinas support a handful of goat dairies producing artisan goat cheese.

Supporting artisanal food is only one component of the Slow Food movement. This international organization with 80,000 members on five continents is dedicated to "events that educate the palate, connect the community and explore the celebration of food." The local convivia (chapter) hosts workshops, dinners, and other events geared to decreasing the distance between food sources and our stomachs.

For more information: Slow Food, Charlotte Convivia: "Slow Food Charlotte is dedicated to events that educate the palate, connect the community and explore the celebration of food." www.slowfoodcharlotte.org or thom@slowfoodscharlotte.org. Celebrity Dairy, 144 Celebrity Dairy Way -- Siler City, 877-742-5176. www.celebritydairy.com.

Eater's Digest

Thursday May 3, The Levine Museum of the New South will present "Global Dish: The Southern Jewish Table" -- a dinner and discussion led by author and UNC--Chapel Hill Anthropological Historian Marcie Cohen Ferris. Ferris will lecture on the history and blending of Jewish and Southern foodways. (Also see: "Shalom Y'all: Southern Jewish cuisine in the spotlight" by Tricia Childress, published Oct. 19, 2005.) I will be there to speak about Charlotte's Jewish cuisine connection. Cost is $25 for Museum members; $30 for non-members. For reservations call 704-333-1887 ext. 501. The series is presented in partnership with the Mayor's International Cabinet and sponsored by Creative Loafing.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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