November 17, 2007

A Land Where Raw is Rare

Chase Hill Farm Organic Raw Milk Camembert (center)
with Vermont Shepherd (right), quince jelly, and crackers

On a recent visit to the Brattleboro Co-op, I asked John the Cheesemonger to recommend something he was excited about. Cocking one eyebrow for a moment, he directed me toward the Organic Raw Milk Camembert from Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, MA. He said that it isn’t often available, since the cheesemaker must hand-deliver the small wheels immediately on their 60th day of life. Why the hurry, you ask? Under federal law, cheese made with raw (unpasteurized) milk must be aged 60 days before consumption. While some styles of cheese adapt well to a two-month aging, soft-ripened cheeses (e.g. brie, camembert) approach or exceed peak ripeness during that period. In general, camembert reaches its peak at four or five weeks.

In countries where this restriction does not exist (France, Italy, Canada, and many more), the consumer is free to enjoy her camembert at any time after its three-week ripening period. Political questions aside, this is important because the flavor and texture of soft-ripened cheeses change dramatically over a few weeks. Upon opening my wheel of Chase Hill Camembert, I noticed the odor of ammonia on its rind, an indication of over-ripeness. The odor faded over the hour that I left the cheese open at room temperature, and I cut it in half to discover its uniformly oozing paste. The scent of the paste was mild and fresh, with a scent of sweet clover. The first bite carried the flavor of fresh milk, though it was quickly overpowered by a sharp bitterness. Eating the rind with the paste actually tempered the bitterness, and quince jelly on a cracker was an excellent combination with the camembert. The cheese was obviously high-quality, but it was overripe for my taste. What a shame I couldn’t enjoy it at its peak!

I will save the government-agribusiness conspiracy theory for the topic of NAIS, because my conclusion is that raw milk cheese is simply misunderstood in the US. From what I have read, I am confident that further research, as is being conducted at the University of Vermont through a USDA grant, will prove the safety of consuming raw milk cheese. Proponents of raw milk cheese argue that pasteurization of the milk used to make the cheese is irrelevant because dangerous pathogens in cheese are a result of improper production or mishandling.

I am in favor of lifting the restrictions against raw milk cheese for two practical reasons. First, as a consumer, I want to have the choice of what kind of cheese to buy, from whom, at what time. I have the legal right to order a rare hamburger at a restaurant (yuck) despite health risks; why can’t I eat my camembert when it still has some springy life under its rind? Secondly, the fantastic artisan cheese producers across the US should have every tool available to them when crafting their products. If they wish to use fresh, unpasteurized milk in a farmstead cheese, it should be their right.

I believe that the raw milk cheese controversy will ultimately benefit the artisan cheese industry in the US. It has led to self-imposed efforts by producers to maximize sanitation standards, illustrated by the pilot program to develop HACCP plans for farmstead cheese producers. It is my hope that this program will be implemented by the time the restrictions on raw milk cheese are lifted.

In the meantime, you can enjoy excellent cheese made by skilled producers. The flavor of high-quality milk is enjoyable even after undergoing pasteurization. If you sample the wonderful variety of American artisan cheese available today, I’m sure you’ll find some solace from the raw milk cheese debate.

Recommended article:
The Myths About Raw Milk Cheese,” by Janet Fletcher

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