Friday, October 22, 2010

Warm goat's cheese with peppery strawberry salad

While holidaying in France in the Dordogne region a couple of years ago, we enjoyed warmed goat’s cheese as part of a set menu at Le Rapier restaurant in Sarlat La Canéda. Although, two courses into the five course meal, we realised we were never going to do justice to the quantity of food, and attempted to explain this to the owner. Our mimes and protests were met by an insouciant shrug even though we tried to explain it was a quantity issue, and the food we had eaten was exquisite.
Photo: Steve Shanahan

We loved the subtle combination of the flavours of the goat’s cheese so much, that when we returned home, we worked to recreate this dish with the addition of some local ingredients.

The strawberries in France are intoxicatingly sweet and the most fragrant of them all are the smaller fruiting Alpine varieties, known as Perpetuals or Remontants which are bred from seed. They are sold individually at the food markets in France and the sweet strawberry perfume, although subtle, wafts around, tempting you to buy them. I have found some equally beautiful varieties in Canberra at local markets and those sold in the larger punnets seem to be far superior in flavour.

While on a recent early morning forage to the Capital Region Farmers Market, I came across some beautiful, traditional French style goat’s cheese’s and the most wonderfully fragrant strawberries, which, as it happens are a perfect match. I made my decision then and there about what to serve for a light spring lunch for a gathering of our friends.

Mountain Ash Goats Cheese
Photo Steve Shanahan

After tasting some of the cheese’s on offer, I settled on an award winning Capra Cheese from Mia Mia Farm in East Gippsland which is certified as one hundred per cent organic goat’s milk. My choice, a traditional, ash-coated, French-style pyramid called Mountain Ash cheese, had a delicate sweetness that was balanced by gentle acidity. While chatting with the cheesemaker, Matthew Gurnsey, he explained that his cheesemaking facility is on-farm, which ensures only the freshest milk is used and reflects the specific local character of the one farm and one herd method.

I learned that Mia Mia Farm is family owned and operated and run as a self sufficient and sustainable enterprise. The goat herd has access to a wide range of predominantly native grasses, herbs and shrubs, reminiscent of their natural feeding habits with the health and well being of the goats paramount in producing fine quality cheese’s.

When Gurnsey showed me some photos of contented looking goats roaming and munching their way around the grassed paddocks, and then rattled off the names of each one, I found I had become somewhat personally connected to these goats; that provided an extra dimension to the passage of our meal from farm to table.

This dish is very easy to prepare and can be done in advance, with the warming of the goats cheese and the tossing of the salad in the final moments before serving. It really works well as an elegant, light entree, or a casual lunch with a dessert. The cheese takes the starring role and can be dressed up or down depending on the salad you choose. Quantities serve 4.

250g goat’s cheese
75g walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
4 slices good quality sourdough
2tbsp cracked black pepper
120g fresh roquette, wild and peppery is best
punnet of strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced lengthways
walnut oil for drizzle
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
truffle oil for drizzle (optional)

Cut four circles, approximately 7 centimetres in diameter, out of each piece of bread, avoiding the crusts.To obtain an even shape I use a pastry cutter. Toast the bread circles lightly under the grill so just crisp, but not browned. I use sourdough bread as it has a sharper taste than most other breads, but any bread works, even a yeasty grain bread is fine.

Combine three tablespoons of walnut oil and the balsamic vinegar in a jar and shake to combine. Place the sliced strawberries in a large bowl and dress with the oil and balsamic mixture and 1 tbsp of the cracked black pepper. Mix through gently and leave to infuse.

Preheat oven grill to medium. Divide the cheese into four portions and spread roughly onto the toasted bread circles, making sure the bread is covered right to the edges. Top the cheese with a good sprinkle of fresh thyme and a drizzle of walnut oil. Place under the warmed grill and heat until soft and oozy but not browned for about two minutes, and remove from grill.

Finish preparing the salad by adding the roquette to the dressed strawberries and toss to combine.

Plate the cheese onto four small dinner plates. Divide the salad between the four plates, and sprinkle with the remaining black pepper, walnuts and drizzle cheese with a little more walnut oil. A couple of drops of truffle oil over the cheese is great for a special occasion.

This meal is perfectly matched to a pinot noir, however if you are a white wine lover, the local Clonakilla Viognier, with its silky fruitiness is a winner. Article first published Canberra Times 20 October 2010. 

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