No kidding -- US goat cheese is catching on

Americans are finally beginning to realize that there's more to cheese than an orange slice between two sheets of plastic wrap. They are also aware that a cheese needn't be imported to be of good quality. Numerous small cheesemaking operations have sprung up in rural areas throughout the United States. And this year's truly ``in'' cheese is the soft, mild, white cheese known as goat cheese -- much of which is being made here in the US.

Goat cheese imported from France first started to appear in cheese shops across the country about four or five years ago. It became popular so fast that US cheesemakers jumped on the bandwagon and are now thriving in New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Philadelphia -- to name a few areas.

Many of these are producing a hard, aged goat cheese that some call ``American type.'' It resembles a Cheddar or Jack cheese. Others make a softer French-type goat cheese. Similar to a mixture of sour cream and cream cheese, it is available in specialty shops and supermarkets.

To differentiate between the two types, some call the American type ``goat cheese'' and the French type ``ch`evre'' (the French word for goat). The goal of some US cheesemakers is to equal or imitate the refined and subtle ch`evres that have been made by hand in France for many years. Competition is tough, however, because the product is more expensive to make in the US. Overall prices for goat cheeses vary widely, and the imported and domestic varieties are sometimes comparably priced.

``The making of US ch`evre and goat cheese is an exciting and logical addition to the cheesemaking industry,'' says Frank V. Kosikowski, professor of food science and researcher at Cornell University. ``We ought to be making even more specialty cheeses in the US. Both goat milk and sheep milk make fine cheeses with exotic flavors, and we can make them here.''

One Columbia County, N.Y., goat dairy produces a hard farm-style cheese as well as a Parmesan-style cheese called ``parmagoat.'' It also supplies the New York markets with a Montrachet-style log and a semi-soft cheese similar to Camembert in texture and aging properties. Other goat dairies produce some of the more familiar cheeses, ones usually made with cow milk, as well as other goat cheeses with and without various herbs.

Retail sales of goat cheese in the US have been rising dramatically, even though goat cheese is actually a small percentage of overall cheese sales.

The protein values of goat-milk cheese are generally comparable to cow-milk cheese. Goat milk tends to run lower in fat than cow milk, although fat levels of some may be higher. Goat milk is not consistent or standardized in fat level. This is partially attributable to the variations in milk from different breeds of goats.

With goat cheese, as with cow cheese, it is difficult to determine the exact calorie content because, being a natural product, the moisture and fat content of the milk used is not precisely the same with each batch.

Fresh cheeses are fragile and will begin to sharpen after a few days in the home refrigerator. Fresh goat-milk cheese is sold at various stages of aging and should be tightly wrapped in plastic and kept in the vegetable hydrator, not the coldest part of the refrigerator.

If you buy more cheese than can be used in a week, the extra can be wrapped for the freezer and stored there for a month. When it thaws, the ripening process is accelerated so that cheese should be used within a week.

For best flavor leave cheese at room temperature about an hour before serving.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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