Serious Cheese

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Serious Cheese: What's the Deal with Raw Milk Cheese?

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[Photograph: Aged cheese on shelves from Shutterstock]

Raw, or unpasteurized, milk has been a controversial topic for quite some time, with strong arguments on each side. But with the FDA's recently increased inspections on raw milk cheese, the debate has picked up new steam—some believe it's the agency's first step toward changing current regulations, or even banning raw milk cheese altogether.

Given the depth and breadth of this particular dispute, there's simply too much to tackle here (we've got it covered in more detail right this way). But in short, some people believe that raw milk cures allergies and a host of other ailments, while others think raw milk in any form is incredibly dangerous. As someone who sells raw milk cheeses for a living, I obviously have a natural bias on this topic. But before I go into my own reasons, let's take a look at the basics —here's what you need to know about raw milk cheese:

  • Pasteurization kills pathogens such as Listeria and e. Coli (plus others like Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella) which can be present in raw milk. Opponents of raw milk assert that the only truly safe cheese is pasteurized cheese.
  • Cows kept in dirty, confinement conditions are much more likely to develop udder infections or other illnesses that can contaminate milk.
  • Raw milk proponents argue that milk from well-treated cows kept in sanitary conditions is safe and pathogen free.
  • If you want to purchase raw milk cheese in the United States, it must have been aged for a minimum of 60 days, whether it's produced domestically or imported from another country. The "60 days rule," which was designed to allow the acids and salt in cheese enough time to destroy harmful bacteria, was set back in 1949 with an almost total lack of scientific evidence. It is, in fact, an arbitrary number.
  • This means traditional raw milk cheeses such as Camembert (which is aged for only two weeks) can only be imported in their pasteurized forms.
  • Pasteurization is not a guarantee against bacterial contamination of cheese. There have been outbreaks of pathogens in both raw and pasteurized cheeses.
  • Though extremely rare, bacterial contamination from cheese (whether raw or not) can be quite dangerous.

Politics aside, we have some phenomenal raw milk cheese makers in the United States. Every raw milk cheese maker understands that the stakes are very high. If these producers aren't fastidious with the cleanliness of their operation, they run the risk of not only potentially endangering consumers, but also bringing negative attention to all raw milk cheese makers. They take their responsibility very seriously and that is undoubtedly the reason why food-borne illness from raw milk cheese is very rare. According to the CDC, there have been 27 outbreaks traced back to raw milk cheeses between 1993 and 2006.

Even with so few incidents, why take the risk? Many argue that raw milk cheeses are more delicious than pasteurized cheeses—pasteurization kills not only potentially harmful bacteria, but also other bacteria that are responsible for infusing cheese with natural, spunky, exciting flavors that can't be simply replicated. Heating milk to high temperatures changes its composition, for better or for worse. But you can count me in the group that believes raw milk cheeses really do have deeper flavor profiles that ought to be appreciated. Here's a list of some of my favorite, domestically-produced raw milk cheeses. Check them out and see for yourself:

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Cato Corner Hooligan [Photo courtesy Murray's Cheese]

Cato Corner Hooligan, Colchester, Connecticut
This cheese stinks! In the best way possible. Cato Corner's Mark Gillman quit his job as a teacher to return to his family farm and become a cheese maker. Mark once sent us cheese so afflicted by stink that the DHL delivered it to us in a bright yellow metal hazardous materials drum (true story). Cato Corner's washed-rind Hooligan is rusty orange, and when made with fat winter milk, it bulges at its rind. Perfectly ripe Hooligan is meaty and practically cries out for a Belgian ale to gulp alongside it.

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Meadow Creek Grayson [Photo courtesy of Meadow Creek Farms]

Meadow Creek Grayson, Galax, Virginia
More washed-rind madness. The first time this cheese arrived at our shop it filled the whole space with an aroma that can best be described as cow poop. Square, Halloween-hued wheels of Grayson evoke Taleggio but pack a much beefier punch. Let this (and all cheese!) come to a perfect room temperature and the paste will soften and become silky. Then pair Grayson with some dried figs and a medium-bodied red wine.

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Consider Bardwell Manchester [Photo courtesy Murray's Cheese]

Consider Bardwell Manchester, Pawlet, Vermont
There aren't many producers of aged, raw goat cheeses in the US. They're finicky to make, and many goat cheese producers focus on fresh style cheeses. But luckily, we've got Manchester. It is a visually stunning cheese, with a mottled, natural rind that reveals snow white paste. Deep, earthy wheels of Manchester vary from batch to batch—sometimes they're a little sweeter and creamier, sometimes a bit funkier and drier. However you find it, Manchester is always well-balanced, with just the right amount of acidity.

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Spring Brook Tarentaise [Photograph: Katrina Vahedi]

Spring Brook Tarentaise, Reading, Vermont
Behold, the French Alps in Vermont! Modeled after the famous French cheeses Abondance and Beaufort, Tarentaise is a pure representation of the pastures of Vermont. 100% Jersey cow milk is transformed in copper vats into twenty-pound wheels which are aged for a minimum of ten months. Nutty, caramel-like, and slightly sweet, Tarentaise makes a sublime grilled cheese sandwich.

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Vermont Shepherd [Photograph: vtshepherd.com]

Vermont Shepherd, Putney, Vermont
One of the first artisan sheep milk producers in the United States and still one of the best. David Major's cheese making is dialed in so well that he includes a card with every wheel describing his flock's diet on the day that particular batch of cheese was made. Vermont Shepherd is made for only a short period of time each year, when the sheep are out on pasture and supplies of cheese remain limited. David Major's daughter worked at one of our shops for a time and even that didn't help us obtain any more of this highly sought after cheese. Wheels start shipping at the end of August and are usually exhausted by January. Sweet, with the texture of soft lanolin and hints of pasture herbs, Vermont Shepherd truly lets rich sheep's milk shine.

About the author: Benjamin Roberts sells cheese, eats cheese, dreams about cheese and runs a burgeoning Minnesota cheese empire France 44 & St Paul Cheese. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or tumblr.

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