Tradition! We use the important ritual of cooking and preparing food as a way to pass down a sense of our heritage. Although recipes evolve over the years, they often tell stories of the past and allow us to better understand a certain time period’s struggles and strengths.
The original use of ash in cheesemaking protected layers of curd that had to wait patiently for more milk before becoming cheese. The charcoal ash used in ancient times kept flies and other critters away while the animals made the next day’s milk. Over time, cheesemakers who raised goats realized the ash also neutralized the acidity of their curds and rounded out the flavors of their cheese.
Today, the visual impact of ash layers and rinds spur the tradition. Most cheesemakers now use dried vegetable ash instead of wood or charcoal ash; the odorless, tasteless ash provides the stunning color contrast they desire while offering a hospitable environment for the molds they want to grow.
The French have mastered the use of ash in cheese making. One of the most stunning and delicious goat’s milk cheeses hails from the Loire Valley. This eye-catching cheese, called Valencay (vah-lehn-SAY), has various producers. A salted, charcoal ash rind blankets the moist paste. The center of this cheese exudes flavors of clean lemon and sweet hay. Legend tells of Valencay receiving its flat-topped pyramid shape when Napoleon was angered upon looking at it. Its original pointed pyramid shape reminded him of his Egyptian defeat, and off came the top of the cheese with an angry swipe of his sword.
For a perfect indulgence, you must meet Sofia, a pretty little goat’s milk treat from Capriole Farms in Indiana. The use of vegetable ash in this recipe provides an alkaline balance to the acidity of the milk. The ash aids in showcasing the essence of the animal without the goaty flavors emerging too strongly. Sofia’s tangy personality pairs with so many fresh ingredients. Young, tart berries and crisp greens make Sofia’s list of favorite companions. As Sofia ages, honeycomb and nuts become her more mature suitors (who love residing next to her on a cheese plate due to the beauty of her ash-marbled paste).
For a truly seasonal treat with surprising flavor, Eclipse from Goat’s Leap Dairy in California will simply make you smile. This dairy only uses the milk its animals produce while roaming the fields between April and October. Eclipse’s silky paste has a fine line of ash running horizontally through its center and a piece of Star Anise resting on top of its rind. Star Anise is the seedpod of a southwestern evergreen that tastes a lot like licorice. The Star Anise crown imparts some subtle flavor to the bright, citrusy goat milk. Make sure you have the right wine handy to pair with the dense and flaky texture of this barrel-shaped treat.
Most goat cheeses that incorporate ash pair well with grassy Sauvignon Blancs. The zing from the wine’s acidity refreshes and invigorates like the gigantic splash at the end of a long waterslide. Sauvignon Blancs pair with the citrus notes of this cheese style while cleansing your tongue of the rich, lactic residue good goat cheese leaves behind.
Now you can stop mistaking ash for bad black mold and bring a little tradition home with your next cheese selection.