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Amazing graze

From goats happily munching out in the fields comes flavorful cheese that restaurateurs and customers are eating up

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2008

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COLRAIN - Joe Hillman is leaning against his barn, smoking a pipe, and looking up at the steep rocky hillside pasture where his herd of goats is browsing clover, birch bark, and tender dandelion greens. His wife, Carolyn, is in the cheese room, ladling curds from the morning milking into strainers to make a ripened chevre, a spring cheese that is aged for two to three weeks, then sent to cheesemongers in Boston and New York. What makes the cheese distinctive is that you can still taste the grass.

In the city, that's what everyone wants. Goats eat hay all winter, but when the warm weather arrives, they're sent out to graze on pasture grass. Farmers turn their milk into fresh curds and make delectable cheeses that are in demand. "It's a very exciting time for us," says David Seaton, a manager at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. A fresh cheese, he explains, might be aged for a week or two, not to develop a rind, but to mellow. "Like asparagus and strawberries, fresh goat cheese is one of the great tastes of spring and early summer," Seaton says. "The taste is bright and herbal and acidic, perfect for the type of cooking we like to do this time of year."

For chefs, that might mean goat cheese croquettes, like the ones Rodney Murillo prepares at Avila Modern Mediterranean in Park Square, or cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, something chef and owner Jody Adams makes at Rialto in Cambridge. But the fresh cheeses this time of year have enough flavor so you can set a round on a plate, drizzle it with good olive oil, sprinkle it with fresh herbs, and present your guests an enticing appetizer. Or float a slice of the cheese in an aromatic bowl of fresh tomato soup (For more ideas, see right).

When chefs first became familiar with goat cheeses about 20 years ago, you'd see them everywhere - placed indiscriminately on food. The flavor of the cheese was often overwhelmed by other strong tastes. Now more cooks appreciate that the simplest preparations let the grassy qualities of the cheese come through.

The best cheeses are farmstead cheeses, made from animals milked on the same land where the cheese is produced. The Hillmans milk their goats twice a day, every day. Their does are bred in the fall and give birth about five months later. "The first three weeks of milk is too rich and irregular for the cheese room so it all goes to the kids. After that we start weaning the babies and making cheese." Mornings and evenings, Joe brings the ladies (as he calls them) down from the hill and into the milking parlor. With a 1950s cow milker, he milks two goats at a time right into a refrigerator tank. The whole thing takes about an hour and then the girls go back up into the pasture land - unless it's raining. "Goats don't like rain, they don't like wind," says Joe. On those days, they stay in the barn.

Formaggio Kitchen stocks seasonal goat cheeses from Hillman Farm and Carlisle Farmstead Cheese in Carlisle. Both farms offer barely ripened rounds, good on a cheese plate. "They are so soft and supple and creamy," says Seaton. "The flavor is complex but not really gamey." Even more mild is the Hillman's fresh curd cheese, smooth and airy and similar to ricotta. Seaton likes to spread the creamy cheese on toast or use it to fill ravioli or baked lasagna. "It lends itself to dishes that are simple but yet very refined," he says.

Local chefs agree. Murillo's goat cheese croquettes are served at Avila like dressed up mozzarella sticks alongside grills such as veal chops or in tomato salads. He uses Vermont Butter & Cheese Company goat cheese, which he mixes with eggs, chives, salt, and pepper, then forms golf ball-size rounds and presses them into discs with his fingers. He batters the rounds in flour, egg, and panko, then deep-fries or pan-fries them in butter. "They're golden on the outside and moist on the inside," says the chef. "Such a nice mild spring and summer flavor."

At Rialto, Adams stuffs Carlisle cheese into fresh squash blossoms, coats them in a light tempura batter, and also deep fries them. The crispy yellow blossoms are served on sliced tomatoes with herb pesto or capers and olives. "It's so nice and so classic," says the chef.

Adams makes a distinction between cheeses that are fresh and those that spend weeks or months ripening on the farm. "Aged goat cheeses are perfect as they are," she says. "I like to just eat them and not mess with them too much. Fresh goat cheeses are simpler and lend themselves to being paired with things or played with a little bit more.

"But at this time of year, I want to just put a spoonful of fresh curds on a salad of spring vegetables - favas, ramps, fiddleheads, nettles, asparagus. Simple food. In the '80s, chefs put goat cheese on everything and in everything - even on fish. They kind of ruined it. I think goat cheese needs to be reintroduced."