My goal this summer has been to eat as many blue cheeses as possible, and yet, when I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin this past week, I had to break with tradition. Yes, yes, I ate my share of blue – along with plenty of gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, some delicious bandaged cheddar, and even a wheel of something runny smuggled in from France. (I can’t go into detail, and if questioned, I will confess I ate it mostly in the dark, distracted by spit-roasting birds and too much good wine.) Alas, the real reason I return to Madison in the summers is to eat a puck of Anne Topham’s ephemeral goat cheese rolled in ash.
Fantome Farm has been a staple at the Madison Farmers’ Market for as long as I can remember, and whenever I go, I am guilty of buying Anne Topham’s fresh chevre and peeling back the plastic wrap to eat it on the spot as if it were candy. In fact, my brother and I call this cheese “Peppermint Patty” when we speak in code, which is more often than you might think. Sometimes we split a round, passing it back and forth, as we peruse the market stalls, oogling flowers and jams, enjoying a kind of amniotic silence. This is the first goat cheese that made me LOVE goat cheese. It predates my love affair with blues. Years ago, it was this cheese that made me aware of “artisanal cheese,” which is to say that Anne Topham is, to me, a kind of Cheese Mother.
I love the clean, crisp taste of this chevre -- its smooth, mild taste makes me think of spring. Its ashy appearance and trillium-colored inside brings to mind a forest floor, alive with pale wildflowers. The characteristic sourness that comes with goat cheese is very gentle here – this is a good petting-zoo cheese for people who are new to chevre – and the ash, although startlingly black, is mostly tasteless. It adds a faint salty edge.
Anne Topham and her partner Judy Boree have been making French-style goat cheese for over 20 years, beginning with a goat named Angie and her kid, Gilda Radner. I’d like to think those goats would be proud to know they’ve spawned a Wisconsin delicacy. For me, spring is never officially here until I sink my teeth into a round of goat cheese liberally rolled in ash. When possible, I like to eat it while lying in the grass, eyes closed, the sound of market chatter mixing with birdcall over the Capital. It’s also good on toasted rounds of baguette.