A Taste of Place in Raw Milk Cheese
Sep. 20, 2017
by David Gibbons
photos courtesy Jasper Hill Farm
The topic of raw milk looms large in any discussion of American artisanal and farmstead cheesemaking. We are a germophobic society embracing the notion that all bacteria are dangerous. This in turn pushes such authorities as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to place prohibitive hurdles in the way of traditional, safe cheesemaking practices.
Advocates of raw milk cheese have quite a few bones to pick with the FDA, which has been known to advance the idea that eating it is essentially the same as drinking raw milk. This is patently false: The truth is that properly made raw milk cheese is among the safest of foods, especially when compared to hamburger meat, poultry products, raw spinach, lettuce or sushi. Incidents of illness from raw milk cheese are extremely rare.
Regardless, many regulators would prefer a "zero tolerance" approach, which is to apply pasteurization across the board as a security blanket: Kill everything and you're safe. But the overarching historical fact is that cheese has traditionally been made from raw milk safely, successfully—and deliciously—for thousands upon thousands of years.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1860s, the French scientific pioneer Louis Pasteur applied heat to eliminate microorganisms he discovered were spoiling wine, beer and milk. Pasteur's process began to be widely applied to cheesemaking milk in the first half of the 20th century, as part of the mass-marketing efforts of large companies such as Kraft. In 1949, the U.S. government banned all manufacture and importation of raw milk cheeses aged under 60 days, rendering genuine French Bries and Camemberts, for example, along with any similar domestic products, illegal. The same law also spelled out that certain types—including mozzarella and cottage cheese—could be made only from pasteurized milk.
In the late 1970s, a back-to-the-land movement spurred a renaissance of traditional cheesemaking in America, but the infamous Jalisco Fiasco almost put an end to it. in 1985, a factory in Southern California shipped out contaminated fresh cheeses under the Jalisco label that sickened 152 people, 52 of whom died. Its products were supposed to have been pasteurized but instead were made from raw milk in an unsanitary environment infested with bugs. This resulted in a government call to ban all raw milk cheeses; meanwhile, with the American artisan renaissance in full swing, the debate was on. By the late 1990s, in the face of scientifically based arguments from U.S. raw milk proponents, backed by their counterparts in Europe and Australia, the FDA relented. Generally speaking, outbreaks of food poisoning from cheese are very rare. Media reports tend to sensationalize and exaggerate the risks of eating raw milk cheeses. Incidents such as a recent outbreak of listeriosis that caused two deaths and, in March of this year, was definitively traced back to a soft raw milk cheese from New York, naturally generate this type of coverage. Alarmism about raw milk cheese smacks of fearmongering simply because, while it's true that soft lesser-aged types are riskier, the biggest risk lies in unsanitary milking, transportation, manufacturing and handling procedures, regardless of whether a cheese is made from raw or pasteurized milk.
Two of the most recent and well-publicized fatal outbreaks of cheese-borne listeriosis were from Frescolina imported Ricotta Salata in 2012, and Crave Brothers' Les Frères soft cheese in 2013. Both of those cheeses were made from pasteurized milk.
Listeria represents a risk that cheesemakers can and do manage well. As long as you're not pregnant or have immune system issues, you can eat just about any kind of well-made raw milk cheese from a reputable, law-abiding creamery without worry.
The Pros and Cons of Pasteurization
If cheese has been made successfully with raw milk for so long, one might reasonably ask why pasteurize at all? First, to ensure uniformity and consistency and thereby enable mass production. Traditional raw milk cheeses change with the seasons, as the animals' feed varies; large-scale, industrialized commercially marketed cheeses cannot afford to admit this sort of authentic and charming variability. And, of course, the second reason is to reassure a public that's presumed to fear bacteria.
Advocates of traditional raw milk cheesemaking consider pasteurization at best optional and at worst completely unnecessary. Pasteurization is redundant to proper milk handling and cheese-making procedures, the argument goes; for any cheese producer, roughly 80% of the work involves cleaning. Cow farms are muddy, dirty places so their milking parlors and creameries must be painstakingly sanitized. Pasteurization can actually provide a false safety net, taking the focus off full and complete sanitary measures; indeed without them, pasteurized milk cheeses are just as susceptible to contamination as raw milk ones. The only true safety guarantees are cleanliness and prompt use. Almost every major modern protocol for traditional cheesemaking stipulates that the milk must be used within a strict time limit.
While it's true that pasteurization destroys the relatively tiny percentage of potentially harmful bacteria in milk, it also eliminates most of the beneficial bacteria, yeasts and molds that reflect terroir, which is the combination of environmental and indigenous factors lending each traditional cheese its unique local character. So, if the goal is cheeses with sophisticated flavors, there are strong arguments against pasteurization.
The bottom line is in a world where adults ought to be allowed to make their own food choices for themselves and their children, Americans have been deprived of that choice when it comes to a significant number of fine cheeses, both imported and domestic. As Max McCalman and I pointed out in our 2009 book Mastering Cheese, it seems a trifle absurd that we're given the option to eat raw oysters and fish but not many cheeses properly made from raw milk.
Tasting is Believing
The differences between raw and pasteurized milk cheeses can show up in aromas, textures and flavors—and often all three. Raw milk cheeses tend toward more subtle texture and flavor profiles; they're not necessarily stronger-tasting but are likely more complex, diverse and multi-dimensional. In musical terms, a top-quality raw milk cheese will be symphonic—with a beautifully orchestrated, perfectly harmonized array of flavors—whereas a pasteurized one, albeit excellent, is likely less complex, less multi-dimensional.
The finest raw milk cheeses offer rounder, fuller aromas and they're likely more pungent. Their textures are better integrated; and, whether smooth and soft or hard and dense, they're pleasingly resistant to the knife, not as brittle or crumbly. In semi-hard and semi-soft cheeses, the pasteurized versions tend to be spongier or more rubbery in consistency.
The American Raw Milk Cheese Movement
The U.S. raw milk cheese movement has had its fits and starts. In 1999, veteran cheese activist Jeffrey Roberts nominated raw milk cheese aged on wooden boards to Slow Food's Ark of Taste. In the same year, the Cheese of Choice Coalition was founded. Soon thereafter, Roberts teamed with several key U.S. raw milk producers—including Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm; Helen and Rick Feete of Meadow Creek Dairy; Alyce Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm; and Cary Bryant and David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery—to form the American Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association and to launch the Slow Food American Raw Milk Cheeses Presidium. A volunteer group made up mostly of busy cheesemakers, these were wonderful initiatives but lost momentum around 2010 due to lack of time and money.
Of over 900 producers surveyed:
- 74% make less than 50,000 pounds of cheese per year
- 7% make over 1 million pounds
- 11% had annual gross sales of more than $1 million.
Source: The American Cheese Society
U.S. Raw Milk Cheese Presidium Protocols
The Cheese of Choice Coalition, also partially moribund, was rejuvenated in 2014 by Oldways, with the hiring of a dynamic activist, Carlos Yescas. Renamed the Oldways Cheese Coalition, it sponsors numerous events and initiatives, including the annual Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation day, which took place April 22nd this year. And more recently, Matteo Kehler teamed with Benton Brown of Crown Finish Caves, Peter Dixon of Parish Hill Creamery, Casey Gilligan of Sugar House Creamery, Kate Turcotte of Shelburne Farms and ACS Executive Director Nora Weiser, among others, to re-launch the Presidium. With all of these passionate advocates and great cheese minds behind it, the American raw milk cheese movement is regaining much-needed momentum and promises a bright future. There is still a long way to go, but with the support of cheese lovers across the U.S. and around the world, there are certainly encouraging signs.
A great raw milk cheese will often be there whispering to you one, two, five or even ten minutes after eating it.
Mateo Kehler talks with Slow Food USA
Why does raw milk cheese matter?
Not all milk is created equal. As a raw milk cheesemaker, I'm intimately engaged with the rhythm and practices of the animals that produce our milk. There's a direct reflection of the people, the animals, and the landscape — the terroir — in our product that gives complexity of flavor. Terroir is a taste of place; the expression of an economy that's rooted in a landscape. There's a cultural link to the land that's inherent to these raw milk cheeses.
Pasteurized cheeses create the opportunity to sever that link between practices and farming. Once it's pasteurized, it's a commodity. It becomes wiped. Pasteurization eliminates most of the beneficial bacteria, yeasts and mold that reflect terroir. In an industrial society, we've gotten very good at imposing economies on landscapes.
Our goal is to build a market for cheeses that are rooted in and reflect the landscape, then add more producers and replicate the small cheese model. We don't want to build one big cheese factory, but instead reveal the terroir, create something more interesting, and build a broader market that engages our customers in the work we do. The local impact is big. There is potential for cheeses to support a landscape over generations, in a way that individual people may not.
Why are you working on reviving the Slow Food Raw Milk Cheese Presidium?
The presidium was originally created when raw milk cheese was threatened by regulations. We're at that place again. We hope to create a space for common understanding, high standards of food safety and benchmarks for deliciousness. We want to bring together a community of producers in a way that will enable us to both promote raw milk cheese and defend it.
When you're dealing with raw milk cheese, you're dealing with a living product that's part of a natural production system. It's going to have natural variability of flavor, and that's a risk for the consumer. Generally, people want what they've had before. They need to be able to embrace the nuance and the subtleties. We have a lot of work to do.
What should we pay attention to when tasting cheese?
Think of cheese as a graph of flavor and experience. Is it long? Is it round? Is it sharp and jaggy? Stop and pay attention to the unfolding of flavor: an initial up-front experience of salty or sweet, the texture that adds dimension, the evolving uniqueness of the finish. A great raw milk cheese will often be there whispering to you one, two, five or even ten minutes after eating it. Try to slow down and pay attention. If you don't slow down, you'll miss the subtleties.
David Gibbons is co-author of three books with Max McCalman, including the James Beard Award-winning Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best; he writes the cheese column for Wine Spectator magazine and can be followed on social media @cheesy_dave.backcomments powered by Disqus