Though goats' cheeses can be bought all year, the milk is highly seasonal. You can coax milk from a cow all year round; goats are trickier. This affects especially the type of small-production farmhouse cheeses you find at Neal's Yard Dairy.
The natural cycle of a goat goes like this: in autumn, as the evenings draw in, goats start feeding on more fibrous vegetation and produce less milk. They come on heat in September or October. Once they are "with kid", their milk begins to dry up, and towards the end of lactation its make-up changes: there is more fat and protein and less calcium salts, which makes cheese making difficult.
Kids are born between Christmas and April. The first milk is unsuitable for cheese making, but by April the goats are out grazing on pasture and production is running at full tilt.
Luc van Kampen, who makes Croghan, a soft, gouda style of cheese, and Mine Gabhar, a French-style lactic cheese, is a virtuoso cheese maker in County Wexford who adheres to this natural breeding rhythm. He does not produce goats' cheese during the winter: "It's expensive, it's heavy on the goats and it's totally against their nature," he says. For the van Kampens, the winter months are lean ones.
Robin Congden and Sarie Cooper, who make Harbourne Blue and Ticklemore, produce a small amount of cheese during the winter. They buy in milk from a farmer who keeps the goats in their family groups, which he believes makes a big difference to milk production. Sarie Cooper says, "It's difficult to produce cheese in the winter months; you need artificial lighting and feed."
Harbourne Blue, a Roquefort style of cheese, matures for three months: the cheese you buy in winter has been made with autumn milk, and from February to May the cheese is virtually unavailable. Ticklemore likewise: this light and delicate, semi-hard cheese sells after about two months' maturation.
So, for British and Irish farmhouse goats' cheeses, this is a season of plenty, and we should be enjoying them into the autumn. Interestingly, French goats' cheeses are sold at Jeroboams cheese shops all the year round - which is not to say that they aren't excellent, but it does mean that the goats are artificially fed and housed in winter.
Basically, goats' cheeses divide into blue, soft, hard, and in-between; semi-soft varieties. It is easy enough to spot a soft goats' cheese, but I am often fooled by the harder ones that bear no relation to the ubiquitous chevre logs. And while some are "goaty" and tart, others are milky and fragrant.
Poulcoin, for instance, is a hard cheese with a thin, natural rind and a smooth texture, not especially strong. Robin Congden's Ticklemore has a dry texture, a little crumbly, with a distinctive flavour. Mary Holbrook's Tilleys, which is semi-soft, with a texture similar to that of Durrus, is made with neither starter nor rennet, but - defying the normal procedure - with the stamens of the cardoon thistle, acquired from gypsies in northern Portugal.
Other soft goats' cheeses are more classical: Mary Holbrook's Tymsboro is ash-covered and soft around the edges like a French chevre, while Luc van Kampen's Mine Gabhar is a creamy, mould- ripened cheese with a blue bloom on the rind. The name means "tiny goat", after a local snipe whose tail feathers make the sound of a goat bleating far away.
These are just a few of the cheeses available. Anyone making goats' cheese likes a challenge, which means there are always new ones being created.
Filo tart of goats' cheese, spinach and pistachios, serves 4
This is similar to spanikopita, the Greek spinach pie, and is based on a tart I ate at Ransome's Dock. It was one of those extraordinarily hot summer days, and I found myself beside the Thames, under an umbrella, with a cold glass of wine.
One attraction of this tart is that it can be reheated, and, if you're entertaining alone, it makes for an easy life. Serve an interesting vegetable salad to start with.
175g/6oz unsalted butter, melted
700g/112 lb young spinach leaves
55g/2oz parsley leaves
sea salt, black pepper
200g/7oz filo pastry
85g/3oz shelled pistachio nuts, minced
275g/10oz soft goats' cheese (medium strength)
Clarify the butter by skimming the surface foam, decanting the clear yellow liquid and discarding the milk solids on the bottom. Wash the spinach in plenty of water, and shake it thoroughly dry. Heat a little clarified butter in a frying pan, add some of the spinach leaves and parsley, season, and cook, tossing them until they have wilted. Remove with any juices to a bowl and cook the remainder. You will need to do this in several batches, and should use up only about 25g/1oz of butter in the process. Drain all the cooked spinach into a sieve, pressing out as much of the juice as possible.
Brush a 30.5cm x 23cm/12in x 9in ovenproof dish with melted butter. Layer half the pastry on the base, painting each slice with melted butter, and scatter half the chopped nuts halfway through the pastry sheets. Arrange the spinach and goats' cheese on top and layer the remaining pastry on top of these, again painting each sheet with butter and scattering the pistachios halfway between the sheets.
Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C (conventional electric oven)/410F/gas mark 6.5, and bake for 25-35 minutes. It needs to be quite a deep gold. Don't remove it when the pastry starts colouring on top; the bottom pastry may still be raw. You can cook this in advance and reheat if required.
Goats' cheeses are available from Neal's Yard Dairy,
17 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden, WC2 (mail order 0171-379 7646)