A Beauty from Portugal


Anybody who sells cheese for a living knows there’s a large contingent of goat cheese avoiders. These folks lump all styles of goat cheese together and banish them all in one emphatic “yuk.” Presumably they’re remembering some overly tangy, chalky fresh chèvre they once sampled that smelled like a goat barn. We’ve all had one of those.
But I’m convinced that a taste of Alva, a silky Portuguese goat cheese, would seduce a lot of these chevriphobes. Maybe this gentle, mellow wheel isn’t a life-changing cheese experience, but I can’t imagine who could possibly dislike it.
The fabulous Portuguese semisoft cheeses that rarely make it past the FDA anymore—like Azeitão and Serra da Estrela—make me grateful for the ones that do. Alva is matured for only about one month, but it’s produced with pasteurized milk so it has a smoother journey past the FDA’s land mines. The producer, Queijo Tavares, specializes in sheep’s milk cheese and ricotta but clearly has expertise with goat’s milk as well. The Murciana, a rugged,mahogany-coated breed prized for its high-fat milk, supplies the raw material.

Alva weighs about 2-1/2 pounds and has a thin, smooth, barely-there rind that sometimes shows a little gray mold. The rind feels lightly coated, but apparently the creamery isn’t using the antifungal cheese “paint” that many others use to keep a rind mold free. A wedge cut from the wheel reveals a pale ivory interior, smooth and uniform, with no openings and no variation in hue. The texture is supple and pliable—give a slice the “horseshoe test” and it will bend without breaking.

The aroma isn’t huge but it is inviting, hinting at cheesecake, sour cream and cottage cheese. I also get a whiff of caramel and a suggestion of gym-socks funk, the first clue that Alva is a washed-rind wheel. But Alva isn’t beefy or overly salty, like a lot of washed-rind cheeses. I find it creamy, perfectly salted and restrained in acidity, with a sweetness that comes from rinsing the curd. (Rinsing removes lactose, so the finished cheese has less lactic acid.)
Forever Cheese, the New York importer, began selling Alva only about a year ago. So it’s a relative newcomer here and not widely available. Currently, the only Bay Area retail sources I have found are Pasta Shop in Oakland and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena, but let’s build demand so it’s in more shops soon. At under $25 a pound, it is reasonably priced. Accompany Alva with pears or grapes on a late-summer cheese board. An off-dry sherry or a malt-forward beer, like AleSmith’s Nut Brown Ale or Belhaven Scottish Ale, would make a good match.