meet the farmer

NOT YOUR SUPERMARKET FETA

Nicolau Farms breaks the mold with its goat cheese.

WRITTEN BY VANESSA RICHARDSON
PHOTOS BY ANDREA THOMPSON

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As a fourth-generation dairy farmer, Walter Nicolau III jokes that milk runs through his veins. His family has been tending cows in Stanislaus County since the early 1900s, when his grandfather, Jose, left the Azores Islands, where dairy farming is predominant, and established a farm outside Modesto.

Walter is breaking the family mold by being the first Nicolau to make cheese. And he stands out in California cheesemaking by focusing on goat cheese. After tending goats as a kid, he turned his hobby into a business 12 years ago, taking over 30 acres from his father and starting Nicolau Farms.

“I wanted to do something different, and I have a great passion for agriculture and for food,” Nicolau says. “Starting this was a way to bring those two together in a perfect marriage and create a great product, like artisan cheese.”

His great products are now award winners — his debut at last year’s California State Fair earned him gold and silver medals for best farmstead cheese — and they’re sold at higher-end stores such as Whole Foods Market and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

Goat cheese gap

Goat cheese is lower in cholesterol and higher in proteins than cheese made from cows, and it has smaller globules of fat, which makes it more digestible and great for the lactose intolerant. In countries throughout the world, people often consume more goat milk and cheese than products from cows, except here in the United States. There are only a handful of goat-cheese makers here in the U.S., but, typically, either they’ve sold to large foreign companies or they’re small scale and only sell locally.

“There’s a big void here of goat cheese that isn’t made with frozen curd from France or Mexico,” Nicolau says. “That’s why we’re marketing ourselves as a California family making goat cheese with California milk.”

His gold-medal winner is Quatro Pepe, a semihard Gouda style that’s studded with black, white, pink, and green peppercorns — one bite produces what Nicolau calls “the perfect balance of salt and pepper.” Capra Stanislaus, the silver medalist, is another semihard cheese with notes of goat’s milk caramel and a mild olive oil finish from the sea-salt brine.

The fresh chèvre comes in a small tub, making it creamier and fluffier than the common goat cheese shaped in logs and discs.

“Ours isn’t as acidic,” Nicolau says. “It’s well-balanced, with a slight citrus finish, so the milk’s wholesome flavors are pronounced.”

Flavors include garlic chive, lavender honey, red chili, and Ghirardelli chocolate.

Nicolau also wants to reintroduce Americans to feta as it should be. The Mediterranean cheese is made of either goat’s or sheep’s milk, but cost-conscious American producers use cow’s milk instead.

“Ours is a traditional one aged in brine, which makes it a nice, salty balance of creamy and crumbly,” Nicolau says. “We can’t compete pricewise, but when it comes to quality, ours supersedes the supermarket feta by far, and a little goes a long way on your salad or pizza.”

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Market innovator

Nicolau grows special grasses on his now-50-acre farm to feed his herd of 200 alpine goats, along with what he calls a “goat granola” of cereal grains to boost milk butterfat and protein. That results in at least three liters of milk a day per goat.

The downside with goats, however, is they don’t produce milk year round, unlike cows; they take a breather during the winter. So Nicolau started creating mixed-milk cheese, an 80/20 blend of cow’s and goat’s milk (he sources his cow’s milk from a single herd on a farm 20 minutes down the road).

“Mixed-milk cheeses aren’t common here, but they’ve been doing them in Europe for centuries,” he says. “I am Portuguese and Italian, so I combine those two backgrounds to make recipes for unique, Old-World-style cheeses.”

Bianchina is a triple crème with a pillowy exterior, a creamy paste just under the rind, and a denser texture in the center. Casiago is an Asiago style with a California twist — it’s a great melting cheese while young, but becomes more full-flavored as it ages. There also are versions with black truffles and Calabrian peppers.

Next up: a wine-soaked goat cheese and Casiago Balsamico, a mixed-milk cheese soaked in balsamic vinegar (Nicolau’s family produces the Sparrow Lane vinegars and offers those, and his cheese, at the family’s tasting room in Ceres). Nicolau has trained a staffer to be his cheesemaker as he focuses more on marketing and ramping up production, but he still likes to experiment with methods and flavors for new types of goat cheese.

“There are very few people doing this, and there aren’t a lot of recipes out there because they’re passed on from generation to generation,” Nicolau says. “Cheesemaking is a balance of art and science. That’s why there’s no better education than being in the vat and finding that right balance.”

Vanessa Richardson is a Sacramento-based writer who typically covers entrepreneurship, startups, and tech innovation, but now is writing more about the business of food and agriculture. She also makes great pasta sauces and a mean chocolate layer cake.

Resources

Nicolau Farms
4451 S. Carpenter Road, Modesto • 209-538-4558 • Nicolaufarms.com

Recipe

Bacon Goat Cheese Quiche

(courtesy of Jesse Layman, executive chef, Sparrow Lane Vinegars in Ceres. Serves 4 to 6)

1 9-inch frozen pie crust
1 8-ounce package bacon
2 tablespoons bacon drippings, reserved from cooked bacon
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1 10-ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed
4 ounces Nicolau Farms fresh chèvre, crumbled
12 ounces evaporated milk
3 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar
¼ teaspoon pepper
Nicolau Farms Quatro Pepe, shaved (optional)

Prepare pie crust according to package instructions and let cool. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook bacon in large skillet with drippings and sauté until caramelized.

In large bowl, combine bacon, onion, spinach, goat cheese, evaporated milk, eggs, and vinegar. Blend well. Add mixture to pie crust and bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until eggs are set and knife comes out clean. Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

Optional: Shave Quatro Pepe over top of warm quiche. 

WRITTEN BY VANESSA RICHARDSON

PHOTOS BY ANDREA THOMPSON

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