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In Praise of Raw Milk Cheese

Winnimere from Jasper Hills

Why We Love Raw Milk Cheese

Until our shop is open, one of the ways we keep our house stocked with great cheese is to join a nationally known Cheese-of-the-Month Club.

This month’s shipment got me thinking about raw milk versus pasteurized cheese because it included a pasteurized Camembert from France.

It was a perfectly good cheese….”nice” was the word our guests used to describe it.  But in my opinion it could have been revelatory if the U.S. allowed us to import raw milk Camembert.

First, a quick primer on U.S. cheese laws.  It is illegal to import a raw milk cheese that hasn’t been aged at least 60 days.  Since Camembert only ages for two to three weeks, we can only get the pasteurized stuff here.

Having traveled and lived in Europe, I’m here to tell you that it makes a difference.  That same cheese that we thought was “nice” had it been crafted in its Brittany birthplace with raw milk, would have been acidic, funky, barnyardy, lactic, creamy, chalky and mushroomy all at the same time.

There would have been elements of hay, the forest floor, wet earth, and cloudy, rainy days all wrapped up in each bit of the cheese.  Instead, what we got was a milky, slightly mushroomy disk that we all agreed was pleasant.

Now, I don’t claim to be a microbiologist, but I can tell you this as a former cheesemaker myself: at one time, the ban on raw milk made sense.  People, especially children, were paying the price for unsanitary working conditions in which milk was produced.  But since that time, we have come so, so far.  And government, which may seem the target of this post, was the one responsible for the cleanup.  But in our zeal, we’ve gone too far.  We’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Those aging laws were crafted 60 years ago and have not changed since.  But a lot has changed in our milk production.  We now have federally mandated sanitation guidelines for producing, transporting and storing milk.

We also have a lot more knowledge of pathogenic material in milk, as well as milk composition and behavior. Check out the Weston A. Price website if you’d like to learn just how far we’ve come, and how beneficial and safe raw milk can be.

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that in our efforts to protect the dairy-consuming public, we demonized the milk itself, and not the poor production methods the milk was being subjected to.

It was never the milk’s fault that people were getting sick, it was the manner of production’s fault.  And now that those crude and primitive production methods have fallen by the wayside, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our stance on raw milk.

Why is raw milk so important?  First, heating milk changes its composition.  And what we lose for the most part is the “terroir” of the cheese.  We lose the flavors from the grasses and flowers the dairy animal consumed and that contribute to amazing flavors.

Maybe just as importantly, when we kill ALL the bacteria in milk (which pasteurization does), some argue that we create a space that allows bad bacteria to get in.  French cheesemakers actually try to encourage the good bacteria in their milk to keep the bad ones away.

Test it, sure.  Test the holy heck out of it!  But once verified clean, and then held and transported in a safe manner, let’s look at all the beneficial aspects of raw milk.  And just one of those is a Camembert that elicits ooh’s and ahh’s when served at a dinner party, not just yawns.  I, for one, would love to put that on my table.  (Oh, and by the way, pasteurized cheese can still be contaminated so we may be needlessly giving up flavor without any real enhanced safety.

Want to learn more about raw milk cheeses?  Here are some resources:

P.S. – That’s not to say that there are no good pasteurized cheeses.  There are a ton!  I just know that to my taste, raw milk cheeses have deeper flavors.

Image Credit: Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farms, a great American raw milk cheese.

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