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In the early 90s there were fewer than ten raw milk cheese makers in the U.S. At this year’s American Cheese Society meeting, held in Burlington, Vermont, in August, almost half of the 200 producers who entered the competition had a raw milk cheese offering.
Before 1862, when Louis Pasteur determined that heating and refrigerating milk could kill harmful pathogens, all cheese was made with raw milk. Since then there has been continuing pressure to pasteurize all milk products, though in 1949 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration OK'd the use of raw milk for cheese as long as the cheese was aged 60 days. As Judy Schad of Indiana-based Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheeses explained in a presentation at Pastoral the other night, a 60-day aging period ensures that “good” bacteria overgrows “bad” bacteria, such as listeria and salmonella, which are also destroyed as the cheese product becomes progressively more acidic.
In the view of professionals like Schad, as well as food scientists such as Harold McGee and artisan cheese chroniclers and Slow Food enthusiasts such as Jeffrey Roberts, you can make a very good cheese using pasteurized milk. Consensus, however, seems to be that raw milk is more conducive to truly great cheese. Natural flora – which varies by factors such as terrain, the grasses grazed upon, and the time of year – are what give cheeses made from raw milk a distinctive terroir, an indelible taste of the land. These unique flavor compounds are frequently processed out during pasteurization.
As part of her presentation, Schad walked us through a number of cheeses; two that stood out for me were the Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy and Mont Saint Francis under Schad’s own Capriole label, both raw milk products. These are some serious cheeses: if you search “stinky” on the Web site for Artisanal Premium Cheeses, these two are at the top of the list.
Grayson is made of raw cow’s milk from Meadow Creek’s farm in Galax, Virginia. It’s “washed rind,” which means the cheese makers stimulate the surface growth of B. linens (Brevibacterium linens) by rinsing the cheese in brine; the cheese, in effect, ripens from the outside in. The Southern Foodways Alliance named this cheese one of its top ten southern cheeses, praising it with words such as “very strong smelling, funky” and “barny and earthy.” I found it powerfully buttery and pleasingly minerally around the edge. Schad described it as akin to a “creamy Gruyere,” though that may understate its potency. I found it a match for a big red wine, both cheese and wine holding their own as they duked it out in my mouth.
Schad called her Mont Saint Francis “a backseat cheese,” meaning that when you drive home with it, you’d best put it in the trunk to avoid being knocked off the road by its assertive and alluring aroma. This raw farmstead goat’s milk cheese, produced in the Kentuckiana region of Indiana, also has a washed rind, and is semihard with a mellow flavor you wouldn’t anticipate if you went by smell alone. Somewhat salty, it tingles the tongue and has an almost crumbly texture. When it comes to pairing drink with this cheese, Schad doesn’t mess around: she suggests bourbon or a bitter beer as accompaniments. You definitely something with enough backbone to withstand the gustatory onslaught.
Pastoral, at 2954 N. Broadway, carries both Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson and Capriole’s Mont Saint Francis, at $19.99 and $25.95, respectively. Obviously that’s a hell of a lot more than you’d pay for a block of cheddar at the grocery store, but as Daniel Sirko, Pastoral’s fromager, says, “These are artisan products; they’re very labor intensive and express a depth that’s not possible with a commodity product. It’s like the difference between a handmade suit and something off-the-rack, or an original painting and a reproduction.”