It wasn’t that long ago that goat-milk cheese was an exotic ingredient like truffles or caviar imported from far away, but now it’s almost become a cliché of California cooking. That’s not so bad, for goat cheese — or chèvre — is tasty and perhaps even a little healthier than cow-milk products.
Many say Laura Chanel started the revolution with fresh cheese from her Sonoma goats, and Alice Waters set it in concrete with her iconic baked goat cheese salad at Chez Panisse.
Now, fresh goat cheese has been joined by a wide range of goat-milk products, including goat milk itself, yogurt, kefir and an array of tasty cheeses.
Napa County has one small goat cheese producer, Goat’s Leap, and used to be home to Skyhill Farms.
But now, Sonoma County is the epicenter of goat-milk products in America. Among the producers are Laura Chanel’s old company, now owned by Stornetta and housed at the facility where Napa Road turns off Highway 12.
Recently, I visited Redwood Hill Farm, a goat-milk dairy and creamery in Sebastopol. Redwood Hill Farm’s creamery or processing plant is in a rather nondescript and obscure cluster of buildings that used to house apple processing north of Sebastopol, while the farm is on a hill via a tricky route not far away.
The company can’t encourage visitors due to the severe sanitation requirements for making milk products. Unlike wine, there’s no alcohol or sulfur dioxide to discourage pathogens, just sanitation and refrigeration. We had to wear “bunny suits” that covered us from head to toe to visit the creamery.
The dairy was founded in 1968 by the parents of present owners and operators, Jennifer Bice and her siblings, many of whom work in the business today.
Bice’s parents left Los Angeles in the ’60s to go back to the country and raise their own food. Soon, they bought goats and started delivering goat milk to local health stores.
Bice took over in 1978, and started to diversify into other goat-milk products. In 2000, they acquired a larger farm, and in 2005 took over the plant they’re now in.
They now have about 300 goats, and sell kefir and yogurt nationwide. Their plain yogurt in quarts is the best-selling yogurt in natural food stores, Bice said, and their plain goat milk is No. 1 in sales in the United States.
Benefits of goat-milk products
Goat milk, I learned, contains more vitamins than cow milk, and it’s whiter.
It has more easily digestible short and middle chain fats and protein solids than cow milk, and can be enjoyed by many people who are lactose intolerant. The increased digestibility of protein is important for infants and children.
In addition, goat milk is higher in calcium and vitamin A than cow milk, and the natural buffering qualities of goat milk make it beneficial for people with ulcers and other stomach problems.
Casein is a natural protein found in all milk, but many people are allergic to the Alpha S1 casein found in cow milk. Goat milk is very low in Alpha S1 casein and primarily contains Alpha S2 casein. That is why many of those allergic to cow dairy can consume goat-milk products.
Redwood Hill’s products
We all know yogurt. Goat-milk yogurt is surprisingly mellow; it doesn’t taste “goaty” at all.
Kefir, a fermented milk drink, is similar, but is thick liquid, not a solid. It is reputed to be exceptionally healthy with its probiotics and enzymes.
Redwood Hill uses only honey or fruit to sweeten its yogurt and kefir, and prepares them with a mix of active cultures. They don’t contain gelatin or other fillers.
While yogurt and kefir are great, it’s the cheese that is most interesting at Redwood Hill.
The company uses only natural vegetarian rennet to coagulate the cheeses, natural sea salt and imported French cultures to give the cheeses their distinct character.
The most familiar goat cheese is probably their fresh chèvre available in traditional, garlic chive, roasted garlic and three-peppercorn flavors.
The dairy also makes aged cheddar, smoked cheddar, raw milk feta (It doesn’t have to be pasteurized, unlike younger cheeses; the acidity and salt discourage pathogens enough to satisfy even the government).
Camellia is a semi-soft cheese patterned after Camembert, as is the larger Cameo.
California Crottin is similar to the traditional crottin, while Terra is a larger version of this delicious cheese.
Bucheret is based on Boucheron, a luscious cheese with a soft layer under the rind around a firmer center.
All are suitable on their own as appetizers, snacks or desserts, but also useful in cooking. Kefir, for example, can replace buttermilk, cream or even condensed milk in recipes, and chèvre can replace cream cheese. They match well with crisp whites like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, even a light pinot noir.
A few recipes are included; more can be found on the Redwood Hill Farm website, redwoodhill.com.
A green and humane business
Redwood Hill is heavily into recycling and has solar panels for electricity. The company doesn’t give its goats hormones, and it treats them humanely and feeds them organic food.
The goats are Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian and Saasen breeds, each with different strengths, like volume of milk, timing, butterfat contents, etc.
The goats are friendly and curious and seem well treated. The farm only has 16 billy goats for 300 does, but fortunately, Redwood Hill’s male kids are in such demand for breeding that they don’t suffer the fate of most such kids — cabrito (goat’s meat).
And the old goats live out their lives peacefully on the farm.
Grown-Ups’ Mashed Potatoes
3 large russet potatoes
4 cloves garlic
One 16-ounce can chicken broth (or use homemade chicken stock)
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh chives or dill to garnish
Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Peel garlic and trim off stem end, then slice thinly.
Heat broth, then add potatoes and garlic. The broth should just cover the potatoes. Cover and cook until potatoes are soft, then mash with a potato masher. You should have just about the right amount of broth to make a stiff mixture, but partially drain if necessary.
Add cheese and butter and mix well. Add milk and reserved broth to obtain desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with chopped chives or dill.
Redwood Hill Farm
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces goat cheese (Redwood Hill Farm plain or three-peppercorn chèvre is recommended)
Roast garlic cloves for 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
Coat a small ramekin with extra-virgin olive oil and add 4 ounces of cheese. Poke several cloves of roasted garlic into the chèvre. Drizzle some olive oil on top and add a sprig of fresh rosemary. Bake for 10 minutes in 400-degree oven or until chèvre is bubbly.
Serve with a fresh baguette.
Redwood Hill Farm
The slightly tart flavor of this cheesecake makes it a natural topped with fresh berries.
For graham cracker crust
2 cups crushed graham crackers
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Dash of nutmeg
Combine all ingredients. Press dough firmly onto sides and bottom of an 8-inch pie pan or cheesecake pan. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 F. Cool before adding the filling.
16 ounces Redwood Hill Farm plain chévre
1 cup Redwood Hill Farm plain or vanilla yogurt
1/4 cup milk
3 Tbsp. melted butter
3 Tbsp. honey (or 5 Tbsp. sugar)
1 tsp. vanilla
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Combine and beat eggs, chévre and yogurt. Beat until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, beating until well blended.
Pour into cooled crust and bake at 450 F for 10 minutes. Cool oven to 350 and bake an additional 35 to 45 minutes (until toothpick comes out clean). Cool.
If desired, mix 3/4 cup sour cream or crème fraiche, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/2 tablespoon vanilla and pour over cake. Bake 5 minutes at 425.
Let cake cool and chill well before serving.
Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms and Goat Cheese
The rich, earthy, smoky taste of the mushrooms is a perfect foil for the goat cheese.
1-ounce package dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups hot water
3 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 cloves minced garlic
1 cup arborio or other risotto rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups beef broth
1/4 cup soft goat cheese
Pour hot water over the mushrooms and let soak 1 hour. Strain, reserving soaking liquid, and heat the soaking liquid (stock) to a simmer. Chop the mushrooms into small pieces.
In a separate heavy pan, heat the butter over medium high. Add onions and chopped mushrooms and sauté for a minute or two, then add garlic. Cook until onion is translucent, but don’t let the onion or garlic brown. Add rice and sauté for a few minutes, coating all grains with oil. Add wine, stirring until it is absorbed. Then start adding the hot stock, one ladle (1/2 cup) at a time, stirring thoroughly and making sure that all the stock is absorbed before adding more. When you start to run out of mushroom liquid, add beef broth to the pot and heat it up, using as much as needed.
After about 20 to 25 minutes, the rice may be done. Bite a grain; like pasta, the white core should just disappear as the rice is done. Add liquid to get a creamy, but not liquid texture. Take off heat, transfer to a bowl, add cheese and mix in well. Serve hot.