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Local cheeses benefit from ‘nuance of season’

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Updated: September 28, 2011 12:18AM

We Americans appreciate consistency.

McDonald’s has long boasted, with good reason, that a Big Mac in Chicago tastes exactly like a Big Mac in Beijing or anywhere else on the globe. The Golden Arches are committed to rigorous quality assurance to ensure that you’ll experience the same tastes, every time, anywhere.

Even more adventurous American chefs adhere to the belief that a menu item should taste the same today as it did yesterday.

In Bill Buford’s book Heat, he recounts a scene involving the chef Mario Batali lecturing his staff that, “If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don’t serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you’re a d-ck.”

With locally sourced ingredients, however, achieving consistency is challenging and perhaps undesirable.

Consider goat cheese. Cesar Olivares, fromager at Pastoral, one of Chicago’s premier cheese shops, recently shared a few of his goat cheeses with me, including one wrapped in maple leaves, another sprinkled with rosemary and peppercorns and a fresh chevre from Prairie Fruit Farms in Champaign.

The latter was chalk-white, unadorned, elegant in its simplicity . . . and different than the last time I tasted it.

At Prairie Fruit Farms, the first certified farmstead creamery in Illinois, Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell tend a herd of Nubian goats and make cheese from their milk.

In a conversation with Cooperband a few years ago, she said the characteristic flavor of her chevre is a lemonlike tang. And eating her goat cheese, I do remember a pleasant citrusy sharpness.

Tasting her chevre a few weeks ago, however, it wasn’t as lemony as I remembered.

Olivares confirmed the cheese had a different flavor, and that for artisanal food purveyors — people who work within the rhythms of nature — such inconsistencies are an expected and valued part of the way the cheese ultimately tastes.

“For producers who milk seasonally, the flavor and composition of the milk changes,” Olivares says. “The first milk of the season is a little more watery, not as developed in protein solids and fats. Once the goats move out of the barn and onto pastures, the milk begins to change. It will then become more lemony and tangy.”

“In many ways, uniformity is a bad thing,” he adds. “Nothing in our cheese case is ever really the same from season to season.”

When you begin to eat local food in season that was grown or made on small farms, often without fertilizers and other chemical inputs, you come to accept that not all foods are going to taste the same every time. And that’s a beautiful thing.

“We learn,” says Olivares, “to love the nuance of season.”

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of culinary chat site E-mail

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