Posted on May 13th, 2011
There’s thunder in my ears and rain in my eyes here in the mountains of Catalunya as I remember another mountain range fifteen years ago.
Stepping out of the weather and into a small room, I saw rectangular wooden tables filling the space in orderly rows. There were no benches or chairs at these dark, worn tables. Instead, they were covered very neatly with small white circular things. I had come here, to the Alps, with my parents, my sister, my godparents and their daughter. We had hiked all day and all the day before, had eaten a salad made from the most enormous head of lettuce I had ever seen in my life (in my child-memory it was two feet wide), we had met rabbits in cages and learned they would be our dinner, and we had seen a very large glacier. On this particular day, however, I don’t think anyone realized how important it was to walk into that small room filled with tables. Because on those tables rested cheeses.
We had walked into an affinage room filled with lactic coagulation goat’s milk cheeses, aged perhaps three weeks. At the time, however, all I thought was, “What’s going on? Where are we? Can I go play with the cat outside?”
My parents bought a cheese from the cheesemaker and we left. I can’t tell you where we were when we cut into this cheese, but I can tell you what it felt like. My mouth had never tasted such an interesting combination of flavors. The acidity, though I didn’t know what “acidity” was at the time, struck me foremost. Cheese had never been tangy before. The Cheddars and Brie back home had all been salty and buttery, but this… this was palate cleansing! It made my mouth water for more. There was a softness to this cheese. It melted on my tongue and coated all of my taste buds without drowning them. There was a delicate creaminess and a hint of salt that balanced the whole experience.
That was the day that I decided I loved young, lactic, slow coagulation cheeses, though at the time, it was just “goat cheese,” and in the states, it’s simply called “chèvre.” I declared it My Favorite Cheese from that day forward, until I met other cheeses of similar complexity yet outrageously different results. I learned that goat’s milk can be the ingredient of other kinds of cheeses and that it is possible to find the subtlety of goat’s milk in the boldness of a Gruyère-type to create a hard, sweet and older goat’s cheese.
That unassuming moment would be henceforth the defining experience. Every time I imagined a happy place, I imagined the mountains. Every time I imagined the perfect life, I imagined hiking and good food. When I wanted to define a fellowship research project, I sought to recreate that family vacation. When I searched for a purpose in life, I found cheese and goats.
What I live now is, of course, not what I experienced fifteen years ago. My life project is not the bucolic holiday of my childhood. Nevertheless, that first moment inspired many of my adult decisions and led me finally right here, to the Pyrénées, to this thunderstorm and to this cheese made of goat’s milk with a rind the color of the sky before darkness.
(Keen to have your own first chèvre experience? Follow the steps of this simple and excellent recipe here, from Fias Co. Farm)