Publication Date: Friday, September 05, 2003
Keeping it raw
Keeping it raw
(September 05, 2003) Local artisan cheesemakers seek new traditions
By Robert Rich
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 say naturally occurring microorganisms inside the raw milk help their cheese develop complex flavors, while imparting local and seasonal uniqueness. By essentially killing the milk through pasteurization, then re-innoculating it with cultured bacteria, they say that industrialized cheesemaking destroys a cheese's personality.
The 60-day rule
Since the 1940's, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (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, cheese experts say 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.
Moshe Rosenberg, a professor of food science at U.C. Davis, recommends that pregnant women and people with impaired immunity avoid all soft cheeses, even if pasteurized, since pathogens can easily be introduced into soft cheese after the pasteurization process, during handling, packaging and distribution.
One study by C.W. Donnelly at the University of Vermont compared incidents of cheese-related illness, 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 rumor that large food conglomerates like Kraft and Nestle have attempted to squash the artisan cheesemakers by lobbying the FDA and World Trade Organization (WTO) to pass restrictive laws about non-pasteurized cheese.
"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," she said. "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 1940s."
Raw, thermized, pasteurized
Some cheesemakers use a compromise between raw and pasteurized, called thermization. This involves heating the milk at lower temperatures (145-149 degrees F for 15 seconds) than the Pasteur method (which requires heating to 160 degrees for 15 seconds or 145 degrees for 30 minutes). Thermizing kills most bacteria, but preserves more of the original flavor than true pasteurization.
The law considers thermized cheese to be unpasteurized. Labeling practices do little to clarify the difference. 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.