Goat cheese is a staple in any food lover’s repertoire. But although we’re used to seeing it on supermarkets shelves, restaurant menus, and most well-supplied cheese plates, it’s a relatively recent arrival—at least for Americans, who, up until twenty-five years ago, only had expensive, imported goat cheese as an option.
But once goat cheese (also known as chevre) became popular stateside, its versatile yet unique flavor became a hit. Usually found as a soft, fresh cheese that is spreadable and minimally aged, goat is used in salads, cooking, and is eaten plain. Hallmarked by its pungent, earthy, goat-like tang, the stronger varieties can be an acquired taste for some. (As a kid, I liked to call it “foot cheese.”)
Besides its many wonderful incarnations, goat cheese is also easier to digest than cow’s milk cheese, making it a viable option for the lactose intolerant. It’s also lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories than regular cheese. (Not that you really need a health-related excuse to eat it.)
Wondering just how diverse this category of cheese really is, we pooled six different goat cheeses purchased in the San Francisco Bay Area and did a taste test. Two California, three French, one Spanish cheese, and a slew of crackers later, we found that goat cheeses are hard to stereotype, but easy to eat.
Price: $15–24 per pound
Bucheron is a log-shaped cheese, often sold as a thick, round slice, that is native to the Loire Valley in France. It is mold-ripened, which results in a bloomy, white rind. It ripens from the outside in, so near the rind it is soft and buttery, while the inner part is chalky or flaky.
Our tasters found it to have a pungent and salty flavor, with a rich, creamy consistency. Some described it as “intense” and most thought it would be best eaten alone or with fruit or crackers—not something you’d top a salad with.
Valencay Jacquin, France
Price: $25–30 per pound
Perhaps the most interesting looking of our goat cheeses, the Valencay also has one of the more fabled pedigrees. It was supposedly created as a perfect triangle in honor of Napoleon’s return from Egypt. But upon seeing the cheese, Napoleon, haunted by a bad time in Egypt, drew his sword and chopped off the top. Now the cheese resembles a trapezoid. It’s covered with a salted charcoal ash and allowed to mature, which causes a blue mold to cover the cheese. The result is a dark outside and a creamy-white inside. It is soft when young, but hardens almost to shredding consistency when allowed to age.
Our tasters liked the creamy rind and dense consistency of this cheese. The nutty and citrus notes were enjoyed by all, as was the salty and distinctive goat flavor. We also thought this goat cheese could stand alone and was best paired with crackers, bread, or fruit.
Skyhill Napa Valley Organic, California
Price: $30 per pound; varies depending on type
Skyhill goat cheese was started in 1990 by Amy Wend, who has a 200-acre farm outside of Napa. The farmstead cheeses and goat milk yogurts are sold to restaurants, small cheese shops, and Whole Foods.
Our tasters found the cheese to have a mild flavor and nice fragrance, with a texture almost like a fluffy ricotta. We thought this was a great multi-purpose cheese and could be used in cooking, salads, and on its own. It’s also mild enough to be used in a goat cheese truffle recipe.
Le Gariotin d’Aluignac, France
Price: $25–30 per pound
This goat cheese, named for small shepherd’s huts in the Quercy region of France, has a beautiful, lace-like ivory rind. As it ages, the rind becomes more intricate and wrinkled, eventually heaving in upon itself. Its bloomy rind ripens from the outside in, so it will be soft under the rind and firmer inside.
In France, you might find the cheese unpasteurized, but the ingredients for our sample included the word “pasteurized” in bright red on the front.
Our tasters found the cheese to have a light, citrus flavor, with a pleasant tangy finish. The texture had a whipped consistency and melted in our mouths. One described the flavor as “very complicated.” All agreed the rind was pretty. We thought this cheese worked well on its own, cut so that the rind stayed intact and eaten with a baguette or crackers.
Laura Chenell, California
Price: $10 per pound; varies depending on type
Laura Chenell is often credited with bringing goat cheese to America. Beginning in the 70s, she started making goat cheese from her small herd of goats. Alice Waters, the famed chef of Chez Panisse, put in a standing order and soon goat cheese was a staple of the gourmet food circuit. Chenell’s cheese is quite mainstream, sold through William Sonoma, packaged as logs under the Trader Joe’s label, and in specialty and supermarkets. Although she makes a multitude of types of goat cheese, we tried the plain.
Our cheese tasters found it light and creamy, without a very strong goat-flavored aftertaste. We thought this was a great multipurpose goat cheese that could be used in cooking, salads, and for just eating plain.
Price: $20–25 per pound
Patacabra, which comes in an oblong shape, is traditionally made in Zaragosa, a city in the Aragon region of Spain. It is a washed-rind cheese, which means the rind is washed in brine during the aging process. This can lend a reddish/brown color to the rind, although the color can vary due to aging. The interior is a semi-soft cheese with an ivory color.
Our tasters found this cheese different in texture from the other cheeses; it was harder, almost like a gruyere. The flavor was salty, but well balanced with the sweet and acid of the goat’s milk. It was a fun goat cheese to try simply because of its uniqueness. We thought this cheese would work well paired with fruit or nuts; it would also be delicious melted on a crostini.
No one cheese stood apart as the best, perhaps because the cheeses were all so different that comparing them was a bit like comparing a Zinfandel to a Merlot. What we did find was that in the world of goat cheese, variety is the spice of the category and part of the fun is trying new types. Some of the more mainstream brands you’re likely to find in supermarkets will reward you with a versatile yet mild flavor; with the specialty cheeses, you’re likely to get pungent, moldy, and complex flavors. To each their own!