(Alabama goat cheese, that is...)
By Jennifer Kornegay
Many different things draw us home, but most often, love has something to do with it. So it was for Alabama native and owner of Belle Chevre in Elkmont, Ala., Tasia Malakasis; her passion for food and its role in her shared Southern and Greek heritages brought her back to Alabama after years of pursuing a fast-paced, high-tech career in California, Philadelphia and New York City.
Even with her success and her satisfaction with that industry, Tasia has always been most fulfilled when cooking. “My job was hectic, but I liked it,” she says. “Still, if you found me really happy, it meant you’d found me in my kitchen.”
She developed affection for food and its preparation early, during time spent with family. “My Southern grandma in Guntersville loved me with food, and we still had relatives in Greece that I visited, and it was the same food culture there. Every celebration revolved around food,” she says.
Despite her feelings, she never knew how to take her love and make it into a viable career. She did try. She left her job and enrolled in culinary school but quickly learned she didn’t want to be a chef. So it was back to her previous profession. And then she fell in love all over again, this time with cheese, cheese being made in her home state. “I walked into Dean & Deluca in Manhattan, this really high-end food market, and was looking at all this cheese,” she says. “Then I found one that said ‘made in Elkmont, Ala.’ I thought, ‘That’s right in my own backyard. How did I not know about this?’”
The goat cheese she’d happened upon was a Belle Chevre product, named after Belle, a carefree little goat who is the representation of all the Alabama goats whose milk goes into Belle Chevre artisan goat cheeses. But it is not just the goats that make the company’s products special; it’s the grass they feed on and the north Alabama soil it springs from that create a truly distinct flavor that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.
After just one bite, Tasia knew that she wanted to be a part of Belle Chevre, so she contacted the owner, and for months, they talked off and on. And then Tasia’s love led her to take a leap. “I called the owner one day and said, ‘I’ve quit my job. I’m coming home to work there with you.’” Timing is everything, and time was on Tasia’s side, as the owner was ready to retire. “I worked at Belle Chevre for free for six months, learning the business, and then I bought it,” Tasia says.
The Belle Chevre Tasia had fallen for had already won multiple awards in the gourmet world and garnered the attention of foodies in big cities from Beverly Hills to New York, yet so few Alabamians knew anything about it. “So I took things in a little different direction,” Tasia says.
She rebranded the products to make them more accessible. “I just didn’t want people to see goat cheese as fancy or intimidating like I think some did,” she says. “It is so versatile and is really the perfect cheese for almost anything, and it is so good for you, with less fat and calories, lower in lactose, more protein and more probiotics than other cheeses. I want people to enjoy it like I do.”
She began the process of spreading the goat cheese love around — today’s product packaging features a cute, stylized representation of Belle the goat — and this process has culminated with the release of her new cookbook “Tasia’s Table.” On one of the first pages, she shares how to make your own homemade goat cheese. On the facing page, she lists other products you probably often use for which goat cheese can nicely substitute.
“It is a compilation of who I am with food, both my Greek and Southern backgrounds,” Tasia says. It’s not just about goat cheese, although most of the recipes call for some form of it in some amount. And it’s not just recipes; in between the attractive hardback covers, there is much more, including some laugh-out-loud funny stories and plenty of mouth-watering photography. The recipes are simple to understand with thorough instructions, and the diversity of categories (from breakfast to dessert) lends credence to Tasia’s sentiment that goat cheese can be eaten with anything at any time. On every page and in every picture, Tasia’s passion comes through. “I had so much fun doing this book,” she said. And it shows.
As to her personal favorite dish to cook, she had a hard time picking. “I love to cook all kinds of things, but I really love to cook really rustic dishes. I did a Moroccan braised beef for a friend’s birthday party recently,” she says.
She’s also carrying on the family tradition of expressing love through cooking. “My son Kelly is 9, and we like to make chicken pot pies together. He makes his initials with the dough,” she says.
Currently, Belle Chevre makes around 2,000 pounds of goat cheese a week. As the company grows, Tasia is considering expanding operations to include a dairy. “We are getting bigger, and soon it may make sense to have our own goats, our own source of milk,” she says.
In the meantime, a bunch of little Belles trotting around farms in North Alabama will keep giving Tasia their milk, and she and her team at Belle Chevre will keep taking it and transforming it, with great care and craft (and just a little love), into an uniquely Alabama product we can all be proud of.
We tested several of the recipes in “Tasia’s Table” and were delighted with them all. The Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Herbs (P. 90) was full of flavor, with a pop of extra yum coming when you hit the pocket of creamy, melted goat cheese. If possible, use fresh basil as Tasia instructs. It does make a difference and is not hard to find (or grow).
The Tapenade-Walnut Tart with Goat Cheese (P. 58) will become your go-to appetizer for holiday guests. It looks (and tastes) quite sophisticated, yet it is quick and easy to make. Salty and crunchy and, of course, tangy, it’s an all-around winner.
And although Tasia couldn’t choose a favorite dish, we’ve got a favorite Belle Chevre product: the Belle and the Bees Honey Goat Cheese Breakfast spread. The honey adds a subtle floral sweetness to the goat cheese’s signature tang. Put it on toast, on a bagel, on fruit, or just eat it off a spoon! Or use it to make Stuffed French Toast using Tasia’s recipe (P. 24). Look for Belle Chevre goat cheese breakfast spreads in cinnamon, coffee and fig variations too.