When my sister-in-law, who is a graphic designer, told me that she was working on a book for a woman in north Alabama who makes in goat cheese, I wasn’t sure what to think. Even though I like goat cheese – it’s especially good crumbled into a salad of spinach leaves, sliced strawberries and toasted almonds – the sound and idea of those two words isn’t very appealing. Goat cheese. Even though it’s delicious, it just doesn’t sound good— at least not to a guy who grew up on cellophone-wrapped Kraft American slices and the occasional grated cheddar on a taco. I feel the same way about hearing the term goat cheese as I do about hearing the term head cheese.
So late last year, when she brought me the finished book, I was immediately shocked! Here on the cover was this beautiful woman with a bright smile who reminded me a little of Giada de Laurentiis from the Food Channel. What the hell . . .? It occurred to me only then I had been mentally picturing some burly Brunhilda in men’s overalls, tending goats in the rocky soil of the lonely southern Appalachians and making – ugh! – goat cheese. But this was something completely different . . . Let’s see what we’ve got here . . .
The book, Tasia’s Table: Cooking with the Artisan Cheesemaker at Belle Chevre by Tasia Malakasis, is a full-color foray into both cooking and eating well and into her fromagerie in Elkmont, Alabama. Now, where I really don’t like the sound of goat cheese, I love the word fromagerie. (You can say almost anything in French, and it will sound beautiful.) Getting into the book, I liked this lady immediately: she loves food and studied English Literature. Malakasis explains in her introduction, “My Journey to Cheese,” that she worked in “internet technologies,” but that it ultimately wasn’t for her.
Why haven’t I come across this woman’s story before? In a 2011 article featured first in O magazine then on Oprah.com, “7 Women who turned their Passion for Food into a Career” the story of her career path is explained in a similar way to what she writes about early in her book:
One day when she was in New York, she “popped in to Dean & DeLuca and picked up a tiny, special-looking cheese called Belle Chèvre,” she says. “It said, ‘Made in Elkmont, Alabama'”—15 miles from where Malakasis grew up and still had a home. “I took it as a sign,” she says. “Maybe this is what I should do.”
And even further back in 2008, Malakasis was also featured in Garden & Gun in “Southern Belle Chévre.” That story goes a little further in-depth, explaining how the Huntsville native wanted to leave the South, only to find that she wanted to return. And return she did: “Today she is the blissful owner of Belle Chèvre, the small goat cheese company in Elkmont that’s in the vanguard of the American artisanal cheese movement.” How did this come about exactly?
Malakasis had discovered that Belle Chèvre was a respected fromagerie founded by a woman named Liz Parnell and her NASA astrophysicist husband, Tom. Malakasis became obsessed. “I just couldn’t get it out from under my skin,” she says. “I called Liz a million times over the next few years. She thought I was crazy.”
In 2007, Malakasis bought Belle Chèvre. (“Liz is still involved, still here to help if I really screw anything up,” says Malakasis.) What she got was a creamery that has garnered the highest honors from the American Cheese Society and the American Dairy Goat Association.
After thumbing through it and jumping around a little bit, I particularly liked this cookbook, in which every recipe doesn’t involve goat cheese. And moreover Malakasis doesn’t insist on our using Belle Chevré necessarily. (In fact, in the early pages, she provides a very simple recipe for making your own goat cheese!) Though she does tell us early on that goat cheese can be a substitute for lots of common things we eat – mayo, sour cream, cream cheese, butter – and the substance of book shows that Malakasis isn’t trying to shove goat cheese down our throats. (A delightful image, I know.)
But I hope you’re ready for your mouth to water. Section one, “Breakfast,” has highlights like the punny “Belle and the Bees Stuffed French Toast” that does involve goat cheese, but then there’s a goat cheese-less recipe for Sweet Potato Hash one page over. Continuing through, on to the lunch section, recipes for gumbo and for Watermelon, Red Onion and Goat Cheese salad caught my attention. In “Appetizers,” Goat Cheese with Pepper Honey sounded really, really good, but then again so does Green Apples with Chévre and Smoked Trout. Oh, and Dates with Goat Cheese Wrapped in Prosciutto! I know I’m highlighting ones that have goat cheese in them, after I just wrote that not all of them do . . . but man, they sound good! I can’t help it. How could you even read those names without wanting to try them . . .
The rest of cookbook contains recipes for similarly scrumptious goodies, including a fair number of Greek recipes in the chapter, “It’s a Greek Southern Thing!” There is Kolokithokeftedes, a word that I wouldn’t dare even try to pronounce, which apparently means “Greek zucchini fritters,” and on that page’s opposite is a nice Greek salad. One page over, Malakasis warns in the next recipe: “I need to let you know right off the bat that moussaka is not a recipe, it’s an event. Almost a full day event.” The pictures of moussaka offered in the cookbook almost make it look like lasagna, but the first ingredient is “2 large eggplants,” and the listing goes on to include cloves, all spice, canned tomatoes, nutmeg, and Gruyére cheese. Delicious!
Surprising things like Tasia Malakasis and Belle Chévre are among the Deep South’s hidden jewels. (For instance, did you know that Alabama has a wine trail?) A few years ago, traveling around Alabama on a fellowship from the Surdna Foundation, trying to visit the non-stereotypical and unexpected sides of the state, I would have definitely gone to Belle Chévre . . . had I known about it.
But Belle Chévre can’t be too much of a secret. Last week, my students and I were hosting a screening of the film Eating Alabama that had an accompanying Alabama food tasting. Since I was reading the book and working on this blog post, I suggested including Belle Chévre, but the girl who was in charge of bringing it found that it was sold out in Publix and in Costco all three times she went to get it!
The long and short of it, Tasia’s Table is a beautiful book with a whole slough of recipes worth trying, both for new versions of tried-and-true favorites and some not-so-common Greek/Southern stylings. Since there isn’t an epilogue at the end of the book to discuss, as there is the introduction in the beginning, I’ll leave you the way that Tasia Malakasis does— just think about these: Apple Galettes and Strawberry-Goat Cheese Ice Cream.