Raw Milk Cheese and the FDA

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April 18th was the inaugural Raw Milk Cheese appreciation day, a celebration of a category of cheeses that many Americans shy away from. I, however, am a raw milk cheese aficionado, and wish that every cheese could be made from raw milk—the flavor that is preserved when milk isn’t put through the harsh process of pasteurization is so important, especially for fresh, delicate cheeses. We have Louis Pasteur to thank for this loss of flavor, because his invention not only kills harmful bacteria, but also kills the majority of natural bacteria in milk that produce great, safe flavor in cheese.

Now, I’m not saying that pasteurized milk cheeses are all bad; plenty of work has been done to make up for the flavor that is lost in pasteurized milk, and some incredible cheeses are made from pasteurized milk. However, the big problem with pasteurization in the United States is that the FDA has enacted laws making raw milk cheeses aged less than 60 days illegal. This means that cheese makers have to rethink the cheeses that they make and the way that they make them in order to follow this law. The FDA does this to avoid foodborne illnesses that can be spread through unpasteurized milk. Does it really make us all that much safer, though?

In 2012, the CDC released a report on foodborne illnesses in the United States. There were 843 foodborne illness outbreaks in total; out of these, 12 outbreaks were due to unpasteurized dairy products. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from raw milk cheeses are very rare, because producers who are working with raw milk know to be careful. Not only do producers take care with the safety of their raw milk cheese so as not want to harm others, but they also have personal interest in the safety of their cheese; if their product were to cause harm to consumers, their business would be done for.

Some people claim that the danger of raw milk cheese is not worth it. It is true that foodborne illnesses can be very dangerous, and even deadly; however, we take a much bigger risk traveling in a car, crossing the street, or, frankly, eating at McDonalds. The real issue in food and environmental safety in the United States is the factory farm system that we rely so heavily on, a system that would not be possible without pasteurization. Is the FDA truly working to keep Americans safe by outlawing raw milk cheeses, or are they instead working to please the corporations behind factory farmed products, who would rather the American public continue to support consume their food rather than locally, sustainably produced, delicious products? I, for one, would rather risk my health by eating raw milk chevre (the kind I’ll be making every day soon in France!) than risk it by putting Kraft American Singles on my USDA verified 100% factory farmed ground beef burger.

Buffalo Mozarella: The Holy Grail of Cheesemaking

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This week I bought my ticket to France, which means I’ve finally locked in my summer working at Chevrerie de la Baie, the small goat and buffalo farm that I worked on two summers ago. The last time I was there, Marisa, the head cheesemaker, focused her energy on learning to make buffalo mozzarella, a new business enterprise that Marisa was working to perfect. Fresh mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk is often understood as one of the hardest cheeses to make, something that one can only really get in Italy.

A few years before I met her, Marisa had decided to diversify her cheesemaking business and get buffalos. Fresh goat cheese doesn’t sell for much in France, and Marisa was barely making enough to make ends meet with only goats on the farm. She was also looking for a new challenge; at this point, making the goats milk cheese feels like second nature to her, and she wanted to try her hand at something different. So, she went for something really different, and started looking for investors to help fund her starting to make buffalo mozzarella.

This was quite the proposition; buffalos are not only extremely expensive animals to purchase and care for, but they are also extremely dangerous. Even with well-trained and happy buffalo, if you catch them on a bad day and they choose to charge you, you’re pretty much toast. Training a buffalo to be comfortable being milked is exhausting and dangerous work. You have to teach them to enter a ‘cage de contention’, a large metal cage that protects the milker from being kicked or butted by the buffalo (well, mostly-Marisa got a few kicks while I was on the farm). And once you finally get the milk, you’re in for a difficult and painful cheesemaking experience, including hand-forming balls of mozzarella by pulling pieces of the curd out of approximately 175° fahrenheit water.

All of this, though, is worth it for that incredible fresh buffalo mozzarella. I was on the farm two summers ago when Marisa made her first successful batch—something she figured out how to do by herself. It was one of the most glorious moments, after weeks of struggling to get the buffalos in to the cage de contention, after trying different ‘recipes’ and seeing failure multiple times, after Marisa repeatedly stuck her hands in water slightly below boiling temperature so she could form the balls of mozzarella by hand. That first ball of mozzarella that we cut in to was firm, and a bit of milk oozed out as we cut it, testifying to the freshness of the boule. The flavor of the fresh, milky, fatty cheese was out of this world; the texture still needed a bit of work, but Marisa is still tweaking and adjusting to get the cheese perfect every time. The best part of the cheesemaking process is this constant adjustment and playing, making every cheese slightly different from a similar one made a month before.

Nostalgia for summer on the farm….

This past week I tasted some palhais, a small goats milk round from Portugal that is salty, creamy, rather mild, and quite ‘sessionable’ as I like to say (a term borrowed from beer fanatics like my brother, used to describe beers that are suitable for drinking long drinking sessions). I finished this small palhais round in about 10 minutes, eating it with my fingers standing at the kitchen counter. This little white goats milk cheese made me nostalgic for the cheeses that Marisa made at Chevrerie de la Baie, and the evenings we would spend sharing a few rounds of fresh chevre and mozzarella de buffle.

An average day on the farm consisted of me waking up and having a bowl of coffee, a few crepes with nutella (okay, maybe more than a few), and then heading off to the barn to feed the goats and check in on ‘my babies’ (the kids). After making sure everything was copacetic at the barn, we would take an ATV out to the field to feed the buffalos and check in. There was always something to do out with the buffalos, in the barn, or in the laboratoire, and we spent most of the day going back and forth (with regular breaks for coffee and a square or two of chocolate, of course). We usually didn’t finish for the day until 7 or 8 at night, but every once in a while we’d get done in time to sit down together before dinner with a glass of wine and few cheeses while the sun set.

Although I learned a lot from Marisa and Fred during the day, one of the best parts of living on the farm was when we got a moment to sit and talk (well, once I could understand French well enough to keep up with the conversation). They would tell me stories about how they had built their business, starting a goat cheese farm in a region in France known for their cows because they wanted to do things their way. They told me about how crazy everyone thought they were when they got the water buffalos, and about how much work it had been to start a cheese business themselves. There was something so idyllic about sitting around a table outside, snacking on an impeccable cheese that we had made together, and learning about the years and years of work that went in to being able to make that delicious piece of fromage.