Yes, Cheese Is Seasonal -- Here Are the Ones You Need to Eat This Spring
You probably don’t think of cheese as a seasonal food, but the time of year can actually have as much of an effect on a cheese’s flavor and texture as it does strawberries or tomatoes. Right now, it’s prime time for a lot of cheeses out there, and there are two reasons why: first, early spring marks the start of the lactation cycle, and second, dairy animals are finally back out to pasture, feasting on the first grasses of the season.
In the winter, dairy animals are “dried off” to prep their udders for the next cheesemaking season. When spring rolls around, all those cheese mommas give birth to their babies, which kickstarts their lactation cycles. That’s a sexy way of saying that they’re producing the first milk of the year. This initial batch is super rich in fat, protein, minerals, and flavor, and that means it’s going to make some mighty tasty cheese.
An animal’s diet also has a big effect on how a cheese tastes. As the weather warms, these ladies are returning to the pasture for the first time since all the grass died in late fall. They’re bathing in the sunshine and munching on luscious, tender blades of grass, herbs, and wildflowers. That aromatic diet will transform their milk into complex, herbaceous liquid gold.
The first cheese you need to get your hands on right now is fresh and preferably local chèvre. You won’t catch much of spring’s effect in an industrial cheese, so look for something made nearby and recently (just check the date on the package). This time of year, fresh chèvre has an extra tart, lemony flavor and the seductively fluffy texture of a down pillow. I love spreading that cloud of goaty goodness on a crusty baguette, especially one that’s a little hot and steamy from the oven so the chèvre softens into the warm bread. If you want to take your fun even further, sprinkle that cheese with some chopped chives or drizzle it with some really nice honey.
In a couple of weeks, start stocking up on lightly-aged chèvre. These wheels are small, so they usually take less than a month to ripen into funky little babies. That means that a few weeks after kidding season starts, these little wheels made with rich, spring goat’s milk will be all ready for you. And they’ll be more complex than the fresh stuff, with tender, wrinkled rinds that smell like freshly baked bread and taste like black pepper. Their interiors are dense and fudge-like, with a concentrated floral flavor. Get a wheel or two for yourself and enjoy at room temperature with a glass of chilled rosé, a combination that’s all strawberries and cream. If you’re more of a beer person, go for something light and frothy, like hefeweizen. The notes of banana bread will transform an aged chèvre into cream cheese on your palate.
Another cheese you’ll need to get your into your hungry mits is Ossau-Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese from the French Pyrenees with a firm paste that tastes like roasted almonds and figs. It’s exceptional right now because the wheels that are now available were made during the mid-summer of last year, when the sheep were noshing away in the mountain meadows. All those juicy summer grasses and flowers make for a crazy complex flavor profile. My favorite pairing for this one is a classic gin and tonic. The herbaceous nature of gin can do some really lovely things to those botanical flavors, and the effervescence is a perfect palate cleanser. Set a vibe with some jazzy music and olives marinated with herbs and orange peel. You made it through this bleak, bitter winter. It’s time to reward yourself.