Artisan cheesemakers seek new traditions
Imagine a crumbly savory Reggiano Parmesan cheese, grated
fresh atop a steaming plate of pasta; or a creamy Swiss Ementhaler
melted decadently in a fondue; or a crisp pear and walnut salad
sprinkled with the tangy sharpness of Roquefort blue.
If you have tasted these flavors, you have almost certainly
eaten a raw milk cheese. Many of the greatest traditional cheeses
of Europe are still made with unpasteurized milk, and a growing
number of American cheesemakers have been asserting their right
to make raw milk cheese as well.
This new generation of American cheesemakers has been striving
to match and surpass the quality of the best handmade cheeses
of Europe. From the local cheese that I have tasted recently,
I think they're succeeding.
Artisan cheesemakers often feel that naturally occuring microorganisms
inside the raw milk help their cheese develop more complex flavors
while imparting local and seasonal uniqueness. By essentially
killing the milk through Pasteurization, then re-innoculating
it with cultured bacteria, they feel that industrialized cheesemaking
destroys a cheese's personality.
60 Day Rule
Since the 1940's, FDA regulations have allowed the use of
raw milk in cheesemaking, provided that the cheese ages longer
than 60 days before distribution. The aging process changes the
chemical environment within the cheese, making it harder for
pathogens like e. coli and listeria to survive. Dry, hard cheeses
are the safest.
Generally, soft cheeses like brie and camembert age less than
60 days, and their high moisture content provides a more hospitable
environment for bacteria to grow.
For this reason, importers cannot legally sell European raw
milk soft cheeses in America, lofting these traditional foods
into the cult status of illegal contraband. Even the Wall Street
Journal wrote about the growing black market cheese culture (June
10, 2003: "Hey, Wanna Buy Some Cheese" by Katy McLaughlin.)
The growing visibility of raw milk cheese has helped spread
several myths, both for and against its consumption. The topic
is complex enough that even trained health professionals have
unwittingly spread conflicting advice, only to fan people's fears.
Many people repeat the advice that pregnant women should not
eat raw milk cheese, for fear that bacterial infection will lead
to complications. In fact, raw milk cheeses that have aged longer
than 60 days probably pose less of a hazard to pregnant women
than soft cheeses made from Pasteurized milk.
Dr. Moshe Rosenberg, professor of food science at U.C. Davis,
recommends that pregnant women and people with impared immunity
should avoid any soft cheeses, even if pasteurized, since pathogens
can easily be introduced into soft cheese after the pasteurization
process, during handling, packaging and distribution.
One critical study by C.W. Donnelly at the University of Vermont
compared incidents of illness resulting from cheese, seeking
patterns resulting from unpasteurized milk. Donnelly found that
many more bacterial infections occured from mis-handling during
manufacture than from bacteria present in raw milk.
Donelly concluded: "Aged raw milk cheeses have enjoyed
a remarkable safety record. This review did not find any compelling
data to indicate that mandatory pasteurization would lead to
a safer product."
Of course, non-pregnant people with healthy immune systems
have little to fear from soft cheese. Runny cheese poses far
less risk than sushi, raw oysters, or steak tartar.
On the other side of the debate, many proponents of raw milk
cheese repeat the rumour that large food conglomerates like Kraft
or Nestle have attempted to squash the artisan cheesemakers by
lobbying the FDA and World Trade Organization to pass restrictive
laws about Pasteurization.
"I used to think we were fighting the big conglomerates,
but I don't think that anymore" says Debra Dickerson of
the American Cheese Society. Dickerson led a task force dedicated
to preserving the 60 day aging rule, working with the FDA and
WTO to allow cheesemakers to continue using raw milk.
"We needed to make our voice heard. They were debating
the issue in terms of large commercial production only, not considering
the advantages of small production from local, farm produced
milk. Microbiological hazards are reduced when the milk goes
from beast to cheese in a minimum of time. We focus on exceptional
quality and flavor instead of quantity and low price."
Dickerson has a refreshing non-confrontational attitude. "The
FDA has been patient and helpful. We just wanted to make sure
they didn't change the laws, which have worked well since the
Raw, Thermized, Pasteurized
Some cheesemakers use a compromise between raw and Pasteurized,
called thermization. This involves heating the milk at lower
temperatures (145-149F for 15 sec.) than the Pasteur method (which
requires 160F for 15 sec or 145F for 30 min.) Thermizing kills
most bacteria, but preserves more of the original flavor than
The law considers thermized cheese to be unpasteurized. Labelling
practices do little to clarify the differences. A raw or thermized
cheese might simply list "milk" as the first ingredient,
or it might highlight "organic raw milk". French labels
might list "au lait cru" or perhaps imply traditional
techniques with an AOC stamp. What's a buyer to do? Ask at a
reputable cheese shop, of course.
Buying and Storing Cheese
Debra Dickerson currently represents two excellent artisan
cheese companies, Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol and Neal's
Yard Dairy in the UK. She recommended these tips when shopping
for fine cheese:
- Shop locally
- Taste before you buy
- Buy less, more often
- Buy from quality merchants, who cycle their inventory
- Ask retailer about shelf life and ideal storage
Dickerson's advice dovetails with some wisdom from Professor
Moshe Rosenberg about storing cheeses: Ideal storage conditions
vary by cheese type. Fresh, unripened cheeses (like young chevre)
spoil quickly. Store these cold, cover tightly, and use them
Plastic wrap can suffocate many cheeses. Rosenberg recommends
that you store aged cheeses in lidded plastic containers at temperatures
around 42-50 F. Let them breathe every few days by lifting the
lid. Dickerson recommends that you keep most fine cheeses in
the vegetable drawer, wrapped in wax paper.
According to Rosenberg, natural rind cheeses and blues prefer
high humidity. Wrap blues in foil, place white rind cheeses on
a slightly moist towel. Aged rindless cheeses (like asiago, cheddar
or parmesan) prefer low humidity, so place them in a container
with a dry paper towel.
Some people prefer to let soft cheeses dry out by wrapping
them only in a paper towel. This intensifies the flavors of brie,
camembert, limberger, and other strong runny cheeses. The French
even let some brie age rock hard, to be grated like Parmesan.
Where to Try
I checked cheese selections in many quality markets in our
area, and found good selections of local artisan cheese.
Mollie Stone Market, on California Ave. in Palo Alto, surprised
me with one of the best selections of local cheeses at excellent
prices, featuring raw milk rarities like Three Sisters Serena
and Bravo Farms flavored cheddars, fresh herb chevre from Harley
Farms in Pescadero, Cowgirl Creamery and Point Reyes raw milk
blue. Shoppers can taste selected samples, pre-cut in bowls scattered
around a wall of world cheeses.
Oakville Grocery, in Stanford Shopping Center, has a good
collection of expertly selected cheeses, with a knowledgeable
staff who happily cut samples for the inquisitive. Although more
expensive and with smaller selection than Mollie Stone, the variety
and service excel. I saw some well aged Cowgirl, Vella Dry Jack
and Mezzo Seco, Redwood Hill crotin, Andante, Harley and more.
The Milk Pail, on California Ave. near San Antonio in Mountain
View, has long been my first stop for good cheese. European cheeses
outnumber the local brands here, but the variety and fair prices
rarely disappoint, with good selection of coastal soft goat cheeses,
and usually some Maytag blue and Redwood Hill Camellia. Look
for good deals on mature cheeses marked "Special".
Whole Foods Markets (Cupertino, Palo Alto, Campbell) have
been outspoken champions of raw milk cheese, and their selection
matches Mollie Stone's, though at slightly higher prices. The
folks behind the cheese counter tend to be helpful and passionate,
and they happily recommend their favorites.
Both Andronico's and Draeger's in Los Altos have excellent
cheese shelves, although I couldn't find many local raw milk
cheeses on my recent visits. The more northerly branches tend
to have slighter better stock (Andronico's at Stanford Shopping
Center and Draeger's in Menlo Park.) Vella Dry Jack, Fiscalini
Purple Moon and fresh local goat cheese appear frequently. Piazza
Fine Foods on Middlefield in Palo Alto (near San Antonio) also
has a great cheese selection, with informative tags describing
each artisan cheese.
Find a market you like, and get to know the cheese buyer.
Ask questions, explore new tastes. Those who don't care for the
potent astringency of a washed rind or aged crotin can gravitate
to the soft nuttiness of dry asiago or aged gouda, the lemony
freshness of young chevre or the buttery sweetness of a double
cream. Fine cheeses offer a vast range of sensual flavors.
Selected Raw Milk Cheeses
Bravo Farms (Visalia, CA):
Makes one of the best double cream blue cheeses I have ever tasted;
also white cheddar, sage and chipotle cheddars.
Crafton Village (Vermont):
A decent extra sharp cheddar, good but simple.
Fiscalini Farms (Modesto, CA):
A noteworthy Special Reserve Cheddar with deep sharp creamy flavors,
also Purple Moon cheddar soaked in Cabernet, among others.
Greenbank Farms (Preston, WA):
A variety of organic, renet-free and raw milk cheeses. Somewhat
disappointing simple flavors.
Pedrozo Dairy (Orland, CA):
Strong aged white cheddar using organic grass-fed milk; also,
wine soaked Tipsy Cow, and gouda style Northern Gold.
Point Reyes Farmstead (Point Reyes, CA):
A sharp creamy classic blue cheese.
Redwood Hill Farms (Sebastopol, CA):
Raw goat milk cheeses include cheddar and smoked cheddar, and
a brilliant strong feta. Pasteurized soft goat cheeses include
the great Camellia, aged crotin, and several fresh chevres. Top
Three Sisters (Tulare, CA):
The dry asiago-style Serena comes from grass fed cows, changing
flavors by the season. Earthy, peppery, nutty, delicious.
Vella Cheese Co. (Sonoma, CA):
Thermized as well as raw cheese with a move toward more raw milk
products, all with consistent high quality and rich deep flavors.
Bear Flag Daisy Wheel cheddar, Dry Jack, asiago, Mezzo Seco,
and many others. Dynamic owner Ig Vella actively promotes artisan
cheesemaking in California.