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Exploring the Loire Valley’s goat cheese trail

Goats grazing by the Vienne River in Chinon, France Goats graze by the Vienne River in Chinon, France. Photo by Chanel Koehl

Goats are pretty cute, especially the ones here at Claire Proust’s farm in France’s Loire Valley. I arrived on a cold, foggy fall morning, and Proust was feeding her goats hay and alfalfa as they roamed the grounds, poking their heads through wooden slats, 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, and they still have their horns.”

The goats had already finished their work for the day. They’d been milked that morning, and the milk would soon be turned into the goat cheese that’s famous in the region. (“If you milk at night, the milk sits until morning, and then the taste changes,” Proust said.)

She led me out of the barn and into her little shop, where she grabbed a classic log of Sainte-Maure de Touraine, the cylindrical chèvre 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 and complexity. The deliciousness was no accident.

Goats in a field in France’s Loire Valley

Goats thrive in France’s Loire Valley. Photo by Chanel Koehl

“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.”

In fact, Proust and her husband, Sébastien Beaury, started Ferme du Cabri au Lait near the town of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine 13 years ago with a mission: to be a ferme pédagogique, teaching goat cheese lovers like me where their fromage comes from. “We are a country that loves its goat cheese,” she said.

France, of course, loves many cheeses. Charles de Gaulle famously declared: “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” Yet only 46 of these cheeses are recognized as Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP). Only 15 goat cheeses are legally protected in France, and 5 of these are made in Loire villages, most within a 2-hour drive of one another.

The Loire Valley in central France is the undisputed world capital of goat cheese—that’s why I’d come here.

Back home in the U.S., I have a friend called Madame Fromage (a.k.a. Tenaya Darlington, cheese expert and author of the encyclopedic tome Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese). She has a colorful way of describing, say, Crottin de Chavignol, the disc-shaped cheese from the town of Chavignol, as “dainty toadstools” that turn “peppery and a little angsty” as they age. Of Valençay (the beloved cheese from that town), she says, “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.”

Crottin de Chavignol arranged on a board

Crottin de Chavignol, a goat cheese produced in the village of Chavignol, France. Photo by Barmalini/stock.adobe.com

Madame Fromage insists that true French goat cheese cannot be experienced in America, since raw-milk cheese is subject to strict regulation here. Most American cheese is pasteurized. Any imported cheese made with unpasteurized milk must be aged for at least 60 days—anathema to ideal goat cheese, most of which is eaten within a week or 2 of production. So to taste the best goat cheese in the world, Madame Fromage insists, you must go to France.

Great pyramids of cheese

I’d spent a good deal of time in the Loire Valley in my job as a wine writer, but I’d never really explored the area’s cheese.

By the time I had my face-to-face encounter with the goats, I’d already geeked out in a cheese museum in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. And I’d spent a cool, sunny morning at the central market in Valençay, near the town’s famous 16th-century château, where people were 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 of the cheese 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 Chèvre Fermier.” I rang the doorbell, and a friendly 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.

In the town of Selles-sur-Cher, I stood in line at a boutique called Huchet behind a woman who bought 8 discs of the local cheese. This seemed excessive to me, but a French friend corrected me: “No, that seems about right for a family. One for each day of the week and 2 for Sunday.”

Valencay arranged on a board

Valençay has a distinctive truncated pyramid shape. Photo by FOOD-micro/stock.adobe.com

But my journey actually 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 are more than a dozen wineries. Delaporte has been buying up and renovating abandoned buildings 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 apartment above an art gallery, next to Chavignol’s only hotel and across the tiny square, past the fountain from cheesemaker Romain Dubois. Behind his shop’s counter was an array of Crottin de Chavignol, from a few days to 5 weeks old. When it’s young, it’s soft and white. As it ages, the rind gets harder and darker, and the taste gets stronger.

I tried not to think too much about 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 of its resemblance to … well, anyway, the name stuck.

An 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 the cheese, he also sold me a dry sausage (also in the crottin shape) and a cheese knife. With a stop at a boulangerie for a baguette, and a 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 Château Sancerre, I unwrapped the Crottin de Chavignol and the sausage, tore hunks of bread, uncorked the wine, and watched the Cher River 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 at a bistro called La Taverne de Connétable on Sancerre’s main square: ravioli stuffed with parsley and dripping in Crottin de Chavignol.

Loire Valley renowned for wine towns and châteaus 

The town of Amboise in France's Loire Valley

The town of Amboise in the Loire Valley. Photo by Chanel Koehl

You don’t have to be a cheese and wine geek like me to enjoy the Loire Valley. Oenophiles know towns like Chinon, Vouvray, and Saumur. But the Loire is also renowned for its gorgeous Renaissance châteaus lining the riverbanks, including the famed Château de Chambord and the Château Amboise, which I explored after dining at the warm, modern bistro Les Arpents.

Chèvre isn’t the only food specialty here either. As I grazed my way across the Loire, I ate wonderful duck, pâté, plates full of roasted chestnuts and mushrooms, and a delicious local dish of eggs poached in red wine called ouefs en couille d’âne. 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 Arabs brought goats with them when they occupied France in the 8th century, until the Franks defeated the Umayyads at the Battle of Tours. But why has goat farming persisted? Locals have theories.

“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 5 or 6 goats. Goats were everywhere.”

One day, 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 1879. Moreau had sold his goats to a farmer a decade before that, and this herd is still where Bilien sources his milk.

A stack of logs of Sainte-Maure de Touraine

Logs of Sainte-Maure de Touraine coated in sel cendre, a salt and charcoal ash. Photo by Chanel Koehl

When I arrived, Bilien’s crew was busy molding both cheeses, and I watched as they crafted 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 2 days ago.” They mold around 1,000 cheeses daily.

By the fifth day, the molds are dried, then coated with salt and charcoal ash to create the telltale rind. I watched 2 rubber-gloved employees hand-wash dozens of logs of Sainte-Maure de Touraine with this sel cendre mixture. “There’s only 1 company in France that makes this sel cendre,” he said. “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 they made the cheese in this odd shape. Bilien said the answer was as mysterious as why goats first appeared in the Loire. “For 400 to 500 years, there’s been a tradition of this long cheese,” he said. “But nobody really knows why.”

When I asked Bilien which of the Loire goat cheeses French connoisseurs consider to be the finest, he shrugged. “I have some older people who come and buy Selles-sur-Cher for the week and Sainte-Maure de Touraine for the weekend, because it’s traditionally considered finer. But in my opinion, both are very fine cheeses.”

Still, they taste significantly different. Sainte-Maure de Touraine is thin and molded vertically, so the curd drains more whey. Thus, “It’s more fruity,” Bilien said. “You have more of the taste of the goat in the Selles-sur-Cher, and it’s more acidic.”

“And how exactly do you describe the taste of the goat?” I asked.

“Strong,” he chuckled.

Later that evening, at my hotel in Rochecorbon, 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 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 the chèvre arrayed on the desk and gave a Gallic shrug. “It smells beautiful.”

The GOAT of goat cheese

Goat cheese beside a cheese knife placed on a cloth napkin

Of the 15 goat cheeses that are legally protected in France, 5 come from the Loire Valley in central France. Photo by Nadeykina Evgeniya/stock.adobe.com

Loire Valley’s “goat cheese trail” is not official, but some farms and shops are tourist-friendly. Websites are in French.

A good place to start is Valençay, both the region and the quaint town of the same name.

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.

Jason Wilson is the author of the books Godforsaken Grapes, Boozehound, and The Cider Revival. He writes the newsletter Everyday Drinking.

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