I recently had the opportunity to visit a good friend of mine who is spending the summer apprenticing at Meadowood Farms in Cazenovia, New York. Meadowood has pastured sheep and Belted Galloway cows and makes farmstead cheeses primarily in the Basque style. I was very impressed with a lot of what goes on at Meadowood, and could tell that a lot of thought went in to doing things in the best possible way. Perhaps the most important part of the cheesy puzzle at Meadowood, however, is the fact that their animals are on pasture, rather than living in confinement eating energy dense food like corn or grain.
I know that food purchasing with an eye to morality can become extremely complex and overwhelming very quickly. Many of the buzzwords that supposedly mean that a food product is good for the environment or good for animals have been co-opted to now mean little to nothing (‘free range’ chickens, for example, or ‘organic’). Unfortunately, there isn’t any easy trick to finding humane and environmentally sustainable products, and shopping in a grocery store can sometimes seem like a crapshoot. One truly important key to good quality, environmentally friendly, and humane cheese, however, is cheese made from the milk of animals who are on pasture.
When animals are on pasture, it is healthiest for the animals, who are eating what nature intended and therefore ingesting nature’s preventative medicine, but it is also healthiest for the land itself. Having animals grazing grass in the correct way reinvigorates the health of the soil, increases carbon sequestration (grass pulling carbon out of the atmosphere), and improves water retention in the soil, therefore decreasing erosion. Raising animals on pasture also means bypassing much of the resource-intensive feed that is given to non-pastured animals (corn, grain) and replacing it with grass.
Why is this important for cheese? Animals who are pastured produce milk that is universally understood in the cheese community to be more complex and flavorful, and therefore significantly more interesting for artisanal cheese production. Milk coming from animals that are on pasture changes day to day and season to season, giving the cheesemaker an extremely challenging and rewarding baseline for their cheese. Tasting a cheese made from pastured animals in the spring usually means fresh, light, flowery, green notes, whereas later in the season the cheese often begins to taste more dense and buttery.
Want to find some cheeses made from the milk of pasture grazed animals? We are lucky in Wisconsin to have quite a few, including our biggest star, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Head in to talk to your cheesemonger and ask to taste some pastured cheeses, and they’ll have a lot more for you…and I promise you’ll be able to taste the difference.