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In the Loire Valley, Goat is the GOAT
Wine isn't the only great thing about the Loire, as I found on my epic tour of its goat cheese trail. Here are my recommendations and itinerary.
Goats are pretty cute, or at least the ones here at Claire Proust’s farm, La Ferme du Cabri au Lait, in France’s Loire Valley, near the town of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. When I arrived on a fall morning, Proust was feeding them hay and alfalfa as they roamed freely, poking their heads through wooden slats in the barn, curious to check out the new visitor. “We want the goats to live a goat’s life as much as possible,” Proust said. “They live outside, not in pens, they still have their horns.” Proust and her husband Sébastien Beaury started this farm 13 years ago, with a mission to be a ferme pédagogique, to teach goat cheese lovers like me where their fromage comes from. “We are a country that loves its goat cheese,” she said.
It was a cold and foggy morning, and the goats were mostly hanging out in the warm barn, chewing, chilling—and being cute. After all, they’d already done their job. They’d been milked a few hours prior, and that milk would soon be turned into the famed goat cheese of the region. Just like it is every morning. “If you milk at night, the milk sits until morning, and then the taste changes,” Proust said.
She led me out of the barn, past the fromagerie and into their little shop, where she disappeared into the back, and then returned with a classic log of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, the famed, cylindrical chèvres rolled in ash. She sliced into the soft cheese, only a few days old, revealing the smooth, glistening white center. I bit into the dense creaminess, slightly nutty, slightly salty, slightly fruity, slightly tangy, full of nuance, complexity, and deliciousness.
“We have the goats on the farm. We keep the milk on the farm. And we make the cheese on the farm. It’s better to stay small and sell directly,” Proust said. “There is no other way. It’s a way of agriculture we fight for.”
I’ve spent good deal of time in the Loire Valley in my job as a wine writer, but I’d never really explored the cheese. By the time I had my face-to-face encounter with goats, I was deep into my chèvres sojourn. I’d visited the small towns I’d previously only known as names behind my local cheese counter. I’d geeked out in a cheese museum, inside a strange, wavy, modernist building in center of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, learning about goat breeds, the land they graze on, and how to see, smell, and taste cheese. I’d spent a cool, sunny morning at the central market in Valençay, near the town’s famous 16th century chateau, with people waiting in line to buy cheese shaped like truncated pyramids covered in ash (Legend has it that Napoleon, in a rage, once lopped off the top with his sword after his defeat in Egypt; the shape remained ever since).
On the drive from, Valençay to Selles-sur-Cher, amid pastures of nibbling goats, I stopped at one of the numerous farmhouses bearing the sign “Fromages des Chevre Fermier.” I rang the doorbell, and a nice older woman wearing a white apron and rubber boots appeared, asking which cheese I wanted: Valençay or the circular Selles-sur-Cher. “I’ll have both,” I said.
At the town of Selles-sur-Cher, I stood in line at a boutique called Fromagerie Huchet behind a woman who bought eight discs of the local cheese. (I thought this seemed like an excessive amount, but I was corrected by a French friend, who told me, “No, that seems about right for one family. One for each day of the week and two for Sunday.”)
There are many, many cheeses in France. Charles De Gaulle famously declared: “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Yet only 47 of these cheeses are protected as Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP). Only seven goat cheeses are protected in France. Five of these are made in Loire villages within a two-hour drive of one another. Yes, the Loire Valley is the undisputed world capital of goat cheese.
Back home, I have a friend called Madame Fromage who has been sort of my cheese sherpa. (Madame Fromage is also known as Tenaya Darlington, cheese expert and author of the encyclopedic tome Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings and the forthcoming Adventures in Cheese). Madame Fromage has a colorful way of describing say, Crottin de Chavignol as “dainty toadstools” that turn “peppery and a little angsty” as they age. Or Valençay as suggesting “patio parties, spring flings, and magical thinking” and “were Harry Potter to wave his wand and develop a cheese, it would no doubt be black and shaped like a stunted sorcerer’s cap.”
Madame Fromage insists that true French goat cheese cannot be experienced in America, since raw milk cheese faces strict regulation here. Most American cheese in pasteurized. Any imported cheese made with unpasteurized milk in the US must be aged for at least 60 days—anathema to ideal goat cheese, most of which is eaten within a week or two of production. “Pasteurizing takes the pasture out of cheese,” says Madame Fromage. So to taste the best goat cheese in the world, you must go to France.
My journey began in Chavignol, an adorable village that’s famous for both cheese— Crottin de Chavignol—and wine. The village is entirely surrounded by hilly vineyards that produce the famous wines of Sancerre. “When you come from Paris, you go to Sancerre for the wine, and you go to Chavignol for the cheese,” said Matthieu Delaporte, of Domaine Delaporte, where I stopped to taste his wonderful sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. “The match of Sancerre and goat cheese is one of the most perfect pairings you can find.”
Chavignol once boasted a population of around 500 people. Now only about 80 people live in the village, though there’s more than a dozen wineries. Delaporte has been buying up and renovating abandoned building in the village. “I am waiting for my second baby so I am also working to repopulate the village,” he joked.
I stayed in an Airbnb above an art gallery, next to Chavignol’s only hotel, and across the tiny square, past the fountain from cheesemaker Romain Dubois. Behind the counter was an array of Crottin de Chavignol, from a few days to five weeks old. When it’s young, it’s soft and white. As it ages, the rind gets harder and darker, and the taste stronger. I tried not to think too much of the cheese’s etymology—it had been originally named in Sancerrois dialect for a small clay oil lamp, but since crottin in French means “dung” and because its resemblance to a pile of…well anyway, the name stuck.
The older man behind the counter took an aged cheese in his hand and said, “When the cheese is a little blue like this, you must eat it all, including the rind. It is very healthy for you.” Besides my cheese, he also sold me a saucission (also in the crottin shape) and a cheese knife. With a stop at a boulangerie for a baguette, and the white Sancerre in tow, it was all perfect for a picnic in the hilltop village of Sancerre—recently named France’s favorite village by a French television network. In a park near Chateau Sancerre, I unwrapped the Crottin de Chavignol, the sausage, tore hunks of bread, uncorked the wine and watched the River Cher drift lazily along in the valley below. I couldn’t think of a better lunch, name be damned.
That night, as if I hadn’t eaten enough goat cheese, I ordered the local specialty, ravioli stuffed with parsley and dripping in Crottin de Chavignol cheese, at a bistro called La Taverne de Connétable on Sancerre’s main square, buzzing with a crowd watching a rugby match.
You don’t have to be a cheese and wine geek like me to enjoy the Loire Valley. Towns like Chinon, Vouvray, and Saumur are well known from wine labels by oenophiles. But the Loire is also famous for its gorgeous Renaissance chateaux lining the river banks, including the famed Chateau de Chambord and the Chateau Amboise, where I spent an afternoon after dining at the warm modern bistro Les Arpents.
Chèvres isn’t the only food specialty here either. As I grazed my way across the Loire, I ate wonderful duck, paté, dishes full of roasted chestnuts and mushrooms, and a delicious local dish of eggs poached in red wine called ouefs en couille d’âne (literally translated as “donkey ball eggs”; again, pay no attention to the name). I ate the ouefs en couille d’âne at a wonderful restaurant in the village of Sancerre called Auberge l’Écurie—the more casual, sister restaurant to the Michellin-starred La Tour.
Still, no meal in the Loire will end without some goat cheese being offered.
So why has this region become historically synonymous with goat cheese? There’s not really a clear answer. Legend says that the Arabs brought goats with them when they occupied France in the 8th century, until the Franks defeated Umayyads at the Battle of Tours. But why has goat farming persisted?
“Traditionally, you farmed goats on poorer lands,” explained Jean-Luc Bilien of Fromagerie Moreau. “Goats don’t need a lot of land. Years ago, this was a poorer region. It’s a business now, but back then it was never the main activity of a family. Years ago, everyone had five or six goats. Goats were everywhere.”
I visited Fromagerie Moreau, which sits in both the Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine AOPs. In 2012, Bilien bought the fromagerie from the original cheesemaker, Jean-Pierre Moreau, whose family had run the company since 1904. Moreau had already sold his goats to a farmer a decade before that, and this herd is still where Bilien sources his milk.
When I arrived, Bilien’s crew was busy molding both cheeses, and I watched as they crafted the both wheels of Selles-sur-Cher and logs of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. “We collect milk from the farm every day,” he said. “That milk was inside the goat two days ago.” They mold around 1000 cheeses each day. By the fifth day the molds are dried, then washed with salt and charcoal ash to create the telltale rind.
I watched two employees wearing rubber gloves hand-washing dozens of logs of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine with this sel cendre mixture. “There’s only one company in France that makes this sel cendre. We always use the same, and all of my colleagues do, too.” Eventually, each log of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine is inserted with a thin straw, which will bear the number of the fromagerie.
I asked why the cheese was made in this odd shape. Bilien said the answer was as mysterious as why goats first appeared in the Loire. “For four or five hundred years there’s been a tradition of this long cheese,” he said. “But nobody really knows why.”
I wondered which of the Loire goat cheeses was considered to be the finest by French cheese connoisseurs. Bilien shrugged. “I have some older people who come and buy Selle-sur-Cher for the week, and Sainte Maure de Touraine for the weekend, because it’s traditional considered finer. But in my opinion, both are very fine cheeses.”
Still, there are significant differences in taste. Sainte Maure de Touraine is molded vertically, so more curds and whey will drain after it’s molded. “It’s more fruity, because it drains much more,” Bilien said. “You have more of the taste of the goat in the Selle-sur-Cher, and it’s more acidic.”
“And how exactly do you describe the taste of the goat?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Strong,” is all he said.
Later that evening, at my hotel, I understood what he meant by strong. I’d gone out for a walk along the river and when I returned, the aroma of cheese hung thick and pungent in the room. I opened a window, along with opening a bottle of Chinon red wine. It was a Monday night and all the restaurants in town were closed, so the hotel made up a simple dinner for the room, which I was planning to enjoy with all the cheese I’d bought. When I opened the door for the hotelier bearing a tray, I apologized for the smell. He looked at all my chevre arrayed on the desk and gave a Gallic shrug. “It smells beautiful,” he said.
If You Go(at)
Loire Valley’s “goat cheese trail” is not official, but some farms and shops are tourist-friendly.
A good place to start is Valençay, both the region and the quaint town of the same name. Tuesday is market day when a number of cheesemongers set up shop in the town center.
Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine also offers a good guide (with maps) to cheesemakers in the region (though it is in French). Be sure to visit the town’s small cheese museum, Les Passerelles, in a futuristic building.
Many of the cheesemakers who produce Valençay or Sainte-Maure de Touraine also produce Selles-sur-Cher using milk from those respective areas. One excellent cheesemaker who makes both Sainte-Maure de Touraine and Selles-sur-Cher is Fromagerie Moreau, whose owner, Jean-Luc Bilien, speaks English.
To experience life on a goat farm (as well as to eat some great cheese), make a stop at Ferme du Cabri au Lait near Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. Claire Proust and her husband, Sébastien Beaury, offer tours and tastings.
Farther west in the Loire, near the famed wine village of Sancerre, lies the quaint village of Chavignol, where the goat cheese Crottin de Chavignol is produced. Visit cheesemakers Romain Dubois or Dubois Boulay to sample and buy.
Related Loire Wine + Cheese Content
Crottin de Chavignol + Sancerre
“You go to Sancerre for the wine, and you go to Chavignol for the cheese,” says Matthieu Delaporte, of Domaine Delaporte, maker of superb Sancerre. “The match of Sancerre and goat cheese is one of the most perfect pairings you can find.”
Sainte-Maure de Touraine + Loire Cabernet Franc
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