The poor man's cow finally gets its due

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Perhaps you've heard the story about the goat in the junkyard who was happily devouring a rusted can of 35mm movie film when another goat came up to him and asked if he was enjoying his meal.

"Well," said the first goat, "the book was better."

That story perpetuates a stereotype about goats that is a myth. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not four-legged dumpsters. I kid you not. In fact, James Mellgren, senior editor of Gourmet Retailer and an award-winning cookbook author, goes so far as to say that goats have discerning palates.

So perhaps it's no wonder that these days people with discerning palates are turning to goats, not as a direct source of food (though roasted goat is one of the most popular meats in the world, Jamaican "jerked" goat being the most famous example), but as an indirect source of one of the trendiest components of American cuisine -- goat cheese.

Formerly referred to scornfully as the poor man's cow and regarded as useful primarily for weed control, the goat is now getting its due. Indeed, in America's Dairyland, Wisconsin, goats are giving cows a run for their money. Though American goat cheese originated in California, Wisconsin is now the nation's top producer. The state is actively recruiting farmers who are interested in raising goats, a task abetted by the fact that goats are smaller than cows and easier to take care of while their milk -- because of the demand for gourmet cheese -- commands almost twice as much money as cow's milk.

Moreover, as one farmer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently, goats are more fun.

"Cows just sit there and eat," he said, "but a goat has a personality." And if you get kicked by a goat, it doesn't hurt nearly as much as if you get kicked by a cow.

Though goat cheese has been made for thousands of years, the goat being probably the earliest domesticated animal after the dog, it was only around 25 years ago that commercial goat cheese production began in the United States. Before that the stuff had to be imported from Europe, mostly from France where it is called chevre after the French word for goat.

In the late '70s, Laura Chenel, whom David Kamp of Vanity Fair calls "a Sonoma County nature girl," was looking for something to do with the excess milk produced by her herd of 500 goats -- all named personally by her -- and decided to try her hand at cheese-making.

Ultimately she caught the attention of Alice Waters of the famed restaurant Chez Panisse. She baked disks of Chenel's cheese to accompany the mesclun salad, creating a trend that swept the country.

Doug Becker, executive chef at Mollie's in Cape Girardeau, prepared one of his favorite recipes, fresh goat cheese gratin, which uses cheese he prepares for the restaurant. (Diane L. Wilson)

Nowadays restaurants use goat cheese not just in salads but in mashed potatoes, on pizzas, melted as a sauce for pasta and in a host of other ways. Charlie Trotter even makes ice cream out of it. Anymore, hardly a goat is idle.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.


Fresh Goat Cheese Gratin

This recipe is a favorite of Doug Becker, executive chef at Mollie's in Cape Girardeau, who regularly prepares house-made goat cheese for the restaurant. Becker was the youngest person ever accepted into the Culinary Institute of America.

2 cups fresh goat cheese

1 tablespoon roasted garlic paste

1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped

1 cup frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and quartered

1/4 cup sun-dried cranberries

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Chopped parsley

Toast, crackers or flatbreads

Mix together goat cheese, artichoke hearts, cranberries and seasonings, being careful not to overmix or puree. Lightly butter or spray a medium gratin or porcelain quiche pan. Spread cheese mixture evenly in pan and top with Gruyere. Bake at 400 degrees until bubbly and lightly browned. Serve hot sprinkled with parsley and surrounded by the bread of your choice.

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