Cookbook Profile

The Wheys of the World

Farmstead Cheesemakers May Lose Traditions

by Lucy Saunders


Call it the contest of the raw vs. the cooked. Sure, all cheese is made from milk, but many of the the classic cheeses of the world—Parmesan Reggiano, Brie de Meaux, Gruyère—are made with raw milk in their countries of origin.

Raw Milk "Lovers of imported cheese recognize the mellow flavors possible only with raw milk," says Ari Weinzweig, a deli operator from Ann Arbor, MI, and a past board member of the American Cheese Society (ACS). and increasingly, American cheesemakers have embraced the strict methods of dairy herd care and manufacture that permit safe use of raw milk in aged cheeses such as Cheddar and Parmesan.

But the symphony of dairy flavors possible only with raw milk may be muted, if not eliminated, by June 1999, should current proposals from the World Trade Organization and the National Cheese Institute hold sway.

The CODEX Alimentarius Commission (CAC), based in Rome, Italy, is an international organization jointly created in 1961 by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations as a food standards program, regulating foodstuffs traded around the world. Currently, CODEX proposals to be adopted by the World Trade Organization include a rule suggested by the U.S. that requires member countries to make only pasteurized-milk cheeses for world trade. Countries could then close their borders to importation of cheeses made from raw milk. and at home, the National Cheese Institute joined the fray, recommending mandatory pasteurization of all milks for cheese.

"The analogy I draw is that of banning books," Weinzweig says. "If you ban 20 of the world's classic books, will people stop reading? No, but the world of ideas would suffer from not having these classics available. Likewise, no one is going to stop eating cheese if raw milk cheeses are banned from the U.S., but the world of gastronomy would suffer, traditional flavors will change, and consumer's choices will be limited."

Ironically, this dilemma comes just at the time when consumers have never had so many delectable choices in domestic cheeses. In the last decade, American specialty cheesemakers have begun large-scale production of sheep's milk and goat's milk cheeses in a variety of styles, from an aged goat's milk Fontina (Vermont Butter & Cheese Co.) to a sheep's milk yogurt (Old Chatham Co.). However, the economic potential is greatest for cheesemakers who maintain their own herds of animals, since farmstead specialty cheeses command higher prices.

Pasture Land For example, Lora Lea and Rick Misterly of the Quillisascut Cheese Co., make a luscious raw milk aged Manchego Cheese, supplying specialty food stores and restaurants in Seattle, Washington. and in Madison, WI, Fantome Farm (whose goats are pictured here) makes an aged Boule from raw goat's milk that has won numerous awards at food festivals. Such small farmstead cheesemakers would suffer economic hardships if forced to change production to all pasteurized milk cheeses. Also, some raw milk cheeses are just not replicable. "Pecorino Romano is a raw sheeps milk cheese," explains Mr. Dominique Delugeau, 1998 president of the ACS. "There is simply no way that the US will be able to make such a cheese in the volumes necessary: there just aren't enough sheep here, or shepherds to milk them."

Consumer safety could be protected through proper labeling, plus additional safety procedures for handling raw milk. For example, a stringent "code of practice," detailing hygiene procedures during raw milk cheese production, was adopted last year by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association of Great Britain. "Good dairy management and excellent sanitation permit the safe manufacture of raw milk cheese in a variety of styles," says Debra Dickerson, a U.S. representative for Neal's Yard Dairy, the famed U.K. maker of specialty cheeses. These rigorous processing and herd-handling standards, designed to make raw milk safe for all kinds of cheeses, are now being examined by the American Cheese Society (ACS) for adoption by its members.

In its political platform drawn up at the annual meeting, the ACS supports the continued democratic option to use both pasteurized and unpasteurized raw milk to produce America's cheeses. Individual countries should have the right to monitor the hygiene practices of their respective dairy industries, and to enjoy their own great cheeses historically made with raw milks. The ACS supports the rights of U.S. cheesemakers to build on old traditions and create new cheese styles, using all types of milks. It opposes mandatory pasteurization because it inhibits the economic potential of many specialty and farmstead cheesemakers, particularly those with their own dairy herds. For a complete platform and petition, visit the ACS web site, at, or write to the ACS, W7702 County Road X, Darien, WI 53114.




Lucy Saunders writes about specialty foods, including cheeses, as well as pairing beer and food. She conducted a Wisconsin craft beer and specialty cheese tasting at the Smithsonian Institute last year.


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This page created November 1998