BRATTLEBORO—New England is such a fabulous place to be in the springtime, especially if you like to eat food. Interesting things are popping up out of the muddy woods and from the sandy riverbanks: ramps, fiddleheads, mushrooms, wild lettuces, dandelions.
Babies are popping out of farm animals, too. Mama cows, sheep, and goats are milking, and they’re eating delicious, delicate grasses, flowers and herbs instead of boring old hay or silage.
This is an ideal set of circumstances if you love fresh cheese. By “fresh” I mean young: aged for 14 days at the most.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that many cheeses have seasons, just as fruits and vegetables do. Sure, you can get strawberries in the dead of winter, but really, can you even compare a December strawberry with one picked in Vermont in June? I don’t think so.
Likewise, fresh cheeses are best eaten between the months of April and October.
These cheeses are moist and milky, and they tend to have no rind because there’s been no time for one to develop. They almost always come in small formats — 16 ounces at the largest — because they are too soft and floppy to keep their shape intact in a larger wheel.
These cheeses are far from complex, but their gentle nature reminds us that a cheese need not be strong to be interesting.
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Most fresh cheeses being released right now are made of goats’ milk. Because of the particular chemical composition of its milk, the goat is the best and easiest source of the three main dairy animals for fresh cheese.
Goats’ milk will make a fine semi-aged and aged cheese, but it’s much more challenging to produce; thus, the prevalence of what we call “chèvre.”
Fresh chèvre also guarantees a cheesemaker a better return on labor.
It takes a lot of milk to make a fresh cheese. It takes even more milk to make an aged cheese because, during the aging process, a large percentage of the milk is lost when the whey drains from the curds, and most often that whey just goes to feed the pigs, so it’s money down the drain.
Goats are small animals and don’t yield as much milk as, say, big ol’ Bessie. Thus, in terms of a quick and efficient return on the investment of labor, feed and time, using goats’ milk to make fresh cheese is a no-brainer. It’s rare to find a goat-cheese cheese producer who doesn’t sell fresh chèvre.
In addition to the release of fresh chèvre right about now, we are also seeing young, semi-aged (usually up to 30 days) cheeses brought to market.
These are most often the soft-ripened cheeses: flat wheels of unctuous paste covered with a white, velvety rind, usually made of cows’ or sheeps’ milk, occasionally of goats.
Sometimes you’ll find these cheeses year-round, especially the cow varieties, but it’s worth giving them another try this time of year because of the positive change in the milk. The milk will not only taste better, but it will also start to take on a yellow hue because of the effect of the chlorophyll from the grasses in the cows’ diet.
Same goes for fresh mozzarella and burrata, a variety made from mozzarella and cream. (I recommend the versions from Maplebrook Fine Cheese, made in Bennington.)
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Why are fresh cheeses best now? Lactation cycles and agricultural seasons. Goats and sheep do not breed year-round, so they aren’t lactating year-round. You can get fresh milk only when the animals are milking.
Because fresh cheeses are aged for, at the longest, 14 days, and because you cannot make a good cheese from old milk, fresh cheeses should only be eaten when the animals are milking.
So, when the female animals are “drying out” — not milking — between October and February, in preparation for next year’s round of breeding, how do some cheesemakers get enough milk to make fresh cheeses? Where is this milk coming from?
Between October and February, nearly all “fresh” goat and sheep cheeses, with scant few exceptions, are made using either frozen or powdered milk or curds.
Sure, the cheeses are “made fresh,” but not from fresh milk. The milk isn’t rotten, it’s just been processed and preserved by having been turned into powder or frozen.
As a result, the texture and flavor of the cheese will suffer. This extra step in processing is not necessary when the cheese is in season.
Even if the animals are milking — as cows do, year-round — during late-fall and the entire winter, think about what the animals are eating. I can tell you what they aren’t eating: bright, fresh grasses, delicious herbs, flavorful flowers.
The thing about fresh cheeses is, because the production process is so basic and the cheese doesn’t age but for a few days, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for maturation, when the cheese’s flavors deepen and become more complex.
Thus, a fresh cheese relies almost completely on the quality of the milk (and the skill of the cheesemaker) to give the cheese character.
This is why the animals’ diet is so integral to the flavor and texture of a fresh cheese. When you eat a fresh cheese made of the milk of an animal that has grazed on those aforementioned delicious, delicate plants, you can taste those plants in the milk.
And while I have no proof of this, I’d like to believe a happy animal makes better milk, which makes better cheese. If you were an animal, would you be happier eating fresh, green things in a field or stiff hay in a barn? No need to think too long about that one, right?
The other great thing about eating fresh cheese in the springtime is, it seems like that’s what our bodies want. After enjoying the rich, heavy, winter cheeses, it’s time to get fresh. “Light” foods that are beautiful in their simplicity like asparagus, baby lettuce, and fresh cheese seem like the right things to eat when the ground starts thawing and the days get warmer.