The big cheese

Food - Bee Wilson reveals what gets her goat

March is the first month of the goat's cheese season, when goat's milk takes on its first grassy mellowness after the acrid scarcity of winter. "So what?" you might say, if you only ever eat supermarket goat's cheeses, whose industrially produced milk has no connection with the seasons. Chavroux, that soft cheese in a jolly pyramidical box, is available all year round, and very delicious it is, too. (My mother-in-law makes a wonderful light pancake filled snugly with a Chavroux mixture and served with a red pepper sauce; it is also good dropped in spoonfuls mixed with truffle oil into bright green broccoli or watercress soup.) But there is still something exciting about the first lemony flavours of a plate of fresh, bloomy goat's cheeses made from unpasteurised milk - something springlike.

I love French goat's cheeses for their shapes as much as anything. There is something architectural about them, these bricks and pillars of cheese - the long cylinder of Chabichou, the sturdy Grecian column of Buche Chevre, the straw-bolstered log of Ste-Maure, the truncated pyramid of Levroux - and, indeed, most of the forms of French cheeses date from the 19th century, when Paris, too, took on its modern shape. Pouligny St Pierre is supposed to look like a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, though I don't think you'd ever guess this unless you had it pointed out to you. Then there are the smaller, squashier cheeses - the tiny Rigottes from the Rhone Valley, the walnut-sized Broccio from Corsica, each whole cheese a single satisfying mouthful. From Provence, you get squidgy discs of Banon treated with brandy and wrapped in aromatic chestnut leaves, each one like a neat parcel. But perhaps the best shape of all is the most basic, the small, round drum-shape of Crottin, whose name means simply "dropping".

The very best of these cheeses are often to be found only in the regions from which they come, made in small quantities by families with a single herd of goats. For example, according to the Loire food expert Jacqueline Friedrich, the greatest Pouligny St Pierre is made by a certain Mme Blondeau, "a neatly coiffed" sixtysomething who lives in a little stone house with a herd of 50 greedy goats who nibble at her climbing roses. Perhaps it's the residue of roses that makes Mme Blondeau's Pouligny so "unbearably delicious". According to Friedrich, "the cut of a Mme Blondeau Pouligny is porcelain; the flavour clean and milky, with hints of citrus and hazelnuts and, at times, a woodsy mushroom scent on the crust". Sadly, I am unable to confirm this romantic description. The only Poulignys I've tasted have been imports from Couturier, a big dairy whose cheeses are very likeable, white and moreish, but certainly not "unbearably delicious".

On the other hand, goat's cheeses made by the British equivalents of Mme Blondeau, though you feel you ought to like them, never seem as inspired as their French counterparts. Swaledale hard goat's cheese from Yorkshire is pleasant enough, but rather unassertive. There are various British imitations of the French log style of chevre - Ragstone is one - but, though wholesome and rustic, they tend to seem a bit chalkier, less well formed than their Continental equivalents. Ticklemore is an interesting hardish goat's cheese made in Devon, much more pungent and complex than Swaledale, but I'd always rather eat Crottin instead, if given a choice.

Goat's cheeses seem to fall into three main flavour categories: the milky (those fresh white creams often eaten with chives or fresh fruit), the nutty or mellow (the French word is moelleux) and the acidic. The cheese expert Patricia Michelson has a theory about this "sometimes aggressive" sharpness in goat's cheese, which she attributes to the way goats eat their food: "They are highly strung with a prickly temperament, searching out food high and low, and using up a lot of energy in the process." So whereas cow's milk (produced by lazy creatures who spend all day chewing) tastes buttery, and sheep's milk (produced by discerning sheep who "neatly graze the top of the fleshy grass") is "sweet and floral", goat's milk tastes biting, like the animals themselves.

Some goat's cheese is especially biting and goaty. If you like this style, I recommend trying the unfamiliar cheeses of Spain. I recently tasted seven goat's cheeses, French, British and Spanish, of which by far the most characterful was the Spanish Monte Enebro, a slice of soft, unpasteurised cheese with a blackened exterior, whose taste is so tangy and sharp that it reminded me not so much of lemon as of sherry vinegar. With a lot of sourdough and butter to temper it, it was extraordinary, less civilised or elegant than the pyramids of France, but unquestionably goatier.

What to do with any leftover morsels? Goat's cheese souffle and goat's cheese tart are well-known answers. But in The Cheese Room (Michael Joseph, £14.99), Patricia Michelson has a more surprising recipe, for Valencay-studded chocolate-walnut brownies. Alas, I have never had enough spare Valencay on my hands to try it.

This article first appeared in Lord Snooty and his party pals

2002-03-04