Local Food Topics
(Addition 2006 - A note to Mountain View locals: Bravo Farms is currently selling its astonishingly good raw milk cheeses at the Farmers' Market every Sunday. Their Silver Mountain dry aged cheese has become one of my all time favorites. Be sure to ask them to reserve a wheel of their two-year aged cheddar for you. It's scrumptuous.)
Raw Milk Cheese
by Robert Rich, September 2003, for MV Voice
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.
"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 1940s."
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 true Pasteurization.
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:
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 soon.
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 first in wax papaer, followed by aluminum foil around the outside. 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):
Crafton Village (Vermont):
Fiscalini Farms (Modesto, CA):
Greenbank Farms (Preston, WA):
Pedrozo Dairy (Orland, CA):
Point Reyes Farmstead (Point Reyes, CA):
Redwood Hill Farms (Sebastopol, CA):
Three Sisters (Tulare, CA):
Vella Cheese Co. (Sonoma, CA):