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Goat Cheese Ruminations

A glass of zinfandel and some sweet French bread prime the palate for chèvre tasting

By Christina Waters

The goats are charming, Laura Chenel is charming, the setting is charming. But how's the cheese? We asked that very question and proceeded to create an impromptu chèvre-tasting involving some palate-clearing old-vine zinfandels, toasted sweet French bread, briny olives, three Chenel cheeses and a rogue "control" cheese from a McKinleyville manufacturer, for contrast. The wines included a Kundé Estate Hundred Year Vines Zinfandel, a Ridge Sonoma Zinfandel and an estate-bottled Rodney Strong Old Vines Zin, Northern Sonoma--all 1993 vintage. These are three powerful wines, but for the record the Rodney Strong opened to become the biggest and spiciest of the pack--and our favorite.

The control chèvre--a creamy fromage blanc (fresh, unaged goat cheese) made by Cypress Grove, turned out to taste frankly strong and gamy, even before we'd had a single sample of the Chenel product for contrast. It tired our palates and would not have been our first choice to save in a time capsule.

So we abandoned it and moved on to the main attractions.

Chèvre logs: From the eight-ounce log-shaped chèvre, we sliced little circular slabs to place atop our wedges of toast. The flavor was impeccably clean, almost buttery, with no trace of dirty sock. We were surprised at how non-goat-cheesy this product tasted, noting that it would be a brilliant substitute for cream cheese, with fewer calories and roughly half the fat.

Cabecou: This example of Chenel's art arrived packaged in pretty jars, and had been marinated in California extra virgin olive oil and herbs. Granted, you could suspend just about anything in olive oil and herbs and get a fairly acceptable result. But this was pretty terrific eating, nutty and forthright. It was great with the pungent olives, wonderful with the bold red wines and sensuous just spread on toast. The oil was scented with thyme and pepper, lending these notes to the creamy smooth goat cheese. Packed in olive oil, the cabecou has a longer shelf life--four months--than the delicate fresh cheeses.

Crottin: Looking just like all those appealingly rounded little trapezoids of chèvre I'd seen and loved in France, Chenel's crottin sported a superficial layer of snowy white penicillin mold. Its extra aging shows in the eating, providing complex depths of flavor--more tart than musky--and a firmly creamy texture. I now believed Laura Chenel's explanation about the undesirable, leathery "goat" flavor present in too many California goat cheeses being due primarily to less-than-pristine goat milk. The crottin could easily hold its own without any bread or olive accompaniment. In our opinion it measured up nicely with French chèvres. We would definitely add this to our personal larder for an appetizer treat, or to pair with port for an after-dinner "dessert" more interesting than something sweet. Distinguished by aging, flavor mellowed and deepened by the influence of the mold, the crottin was the big hit of our mini-tasting, and we shamelessly sparred over the last remaining traces.

Then we finished the wine.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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