If you like salted caramels—everyone nodding?—you will love Stanislaus Caprine. Dense, sweet and salty, this aged goat cheese reminds me of dulce de leche, the concentrated goat’s-milk caramel. The cheese’s name is slightly unwieldy, but Californians will recognize Stanislaus as a county in the state’s fertile Central Valley. Walter Nicolau, the cheesemaker, is a fourth-generation dairyman there who started his own farm and made his first cheese at the age of 20. Nicolau Farms is less than five miles from where Walter’s great-grandfather had his cow dairy.
Walter and his wife, Elizabeth, started with 40 goats and now milk 150. Their 30-acre farm is an anomaly in this area, better known for gargantuan factory farms with thousands of cows. AgWeb, an online resource, reported last year that the county had almost 180,000 cows on 22 farms. That’s an average of more than 8,000 cows per farm.
Now in its fifteenth year, Nicolau Farms offers another, more environmentally friendly model for how to succeed in the dairy business. The couple grows all the feed for their animals and uses only their own milk for their cheeses. Although they make plain and flavored fresh chèvres—a dime a dozen in California—it’s the aged wheels that distinguish the creamery and that appeal to me most.
Caprine is a six-pound wheel made with pasteurized milk and matured for two to four months. Inspired by Gouda recipes, Nicolau washes the curd to make a softer, sweeter cheese with less acidity. The wheels are brined to season them, dried down, then coated with a breathable polymer, like most Gouda, to keep mold down as they mature.
The wheel I tried was probably nearing the end of its life as a table cheese. The interior was ivory, darker near the rind, with just a few tiny openings and a brittle, slightly sandy texture. The caramel fragrance was pronounced, as was the salt. The flavor was concentrated, with enough sweetness to offset the salt, but with an intensity that satisfied me quickly. Try shaving Caprine with a cheese plane into an arugula salad with shaved fennel or with the last of the year’s fresh figs. Nicolau Farms Quattro Pepe, also delightful, is the same cheese studded with four types of peppercorns.
No wonder the Nicolau goats produce such high-quality milk. These ladies eat as well as I do, maybe better. In fact, we enjoy a lot of the same things: whole wheat and rye (I consume mine in bread form; they prefer hay) and almonds (I get the nuts; they eat the hulls). Like me, they are locavores, nourished by what grows around them. Unlike me, they get an annual two-month sabbatical.
Look for Nicolau Farms Stanislaus Caprine (sometimes labeled as Capra Stanislaus) at Say Cheese and Other Avenues in San Francisco; Country Cheese Mart in Berkeley; Sunshine Foods in St. Helena; Sacramento Natural Foods; El Cerrito Natural Grocery Annex; Staff of Life in Santa Cruz; Cheese Shop of Carmel; and Whole Foods in Venice, Encintas and Newport Beach. A malt-focused beer, like an Oktoberfest or Belgian dubbel, would be a good fit.