Goat cheese doesn’t naturally spring to mind when you think of that good old American grilled cheese sandwich. That’s a shame, because goat cheese has much to recommend it. It’s far healthier than cow’s milk cheeses, because it has 30 to 40 percent fewer calories and fat, and it has considerably more vitamins and minerals — 13 percent more calcium alone.
To cap it all off, goat cheese has less lactose, and of course it’s gluten-free. But all of this ignores how versatile and varied goat cheese has become. And no American producer is more responsible for that than Laura Chenel.
Chenel was America’s first commercial producer of goat cheese, and arguably no one has done as much to popularize goat cheese in this country. As a young Californian in the 1970s, Chenel’s passion for goats led her to France, where she learned the art of cheese-making in a series of apprenticeships with French makers of chèvre.
Returning home, she worked odd jobs while selling her cheese at local farmers markets and to shops. Her big break came when no less than Alice Waters herself put “Laura Chenel’s Chèvre” on the menu at her iconic Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. It’s also believed that this may have been the first goat cheese salad on an American menu. Waters’ standing order for 50 pounds of goat cheese a week allowed Chenel to quit her day jobs and pursue her passion full-time.
Every year since, her company has pushed the boundaries of goat cheese, creating a portfolio of goat cheese flavors. Their quality is unmatched and their variety seemingly endless. Logs of goat cheese are now flavored with summer figs, crushed olives, black truffle, pimento and garlic, garlic and chives, and honey, all with the underpinning of Chenel’s superb chèvre. Small wonder that the company now sells more than two million pounds of cheese a year. Their standards have never varied.
In 2006, Chenel sold her interest in the company to the Triballat family, French cheesemakers whose company, Rians, has made world-class goat cheese for four generations. The Laura Chenel philosophy and portfolio of cheeses have remained steadfastly the same under Rians ownership.
To celebrate National Grilled Cheese Month, there’s one more reason for choosing goat cheese. This time of year, Laura Chenel runs a “Celebrate Spring Milk” campaign which signals the arrival of the new kids, which means goat’s milk is particularly plentiful, and fresh goat cheese should be at the top of diners’ minds.