Cows aren’t exactly the world’s cleanest animal. Most of them aren’t grazing in idyllic pastures, but rather hot beds of bacteria filled with dirt, bugs and plenty of manure. It’s for this reason that cheesemakers must be diligent in taking every possible measure to ensure that their cheese doesn’t wind up hosting dangerous pathogens like listeria and e.coli.
Most American cheesemakers do this with pasteurization, the process of heating up milk to a very high temperature for a short period of time. Pasteurization extends the shelf life of dairy products, and it is the most efficient way to prevent cheese from containing dangerous bacteria and pathogens (particularly if a cheesemaker is making its product from cows living in unsanitary conditions). But it’s not the only way.
While cheesemakers in Europe produce raw milk cheese with few health problems, in the U.S., the FDA requires that all cheese sold stateside must be pasteurized or – if made with raw milk – aged a minimum of 60 days and labeled accordingly.
So what’s the big deal about pasteurization anyway?
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Well, many fromage fans believe that cheese made in Italy, France, and many other European countries is superior to anything you’ll find stateside for the simple fact that it’s unpasteurized. Pasteurization not only kills bad bacteria, it kills good bacteria that imparts cheese with a broad spectrum of unique, complex flavors – which is why you find fanatics smuggling raw milk cheeses back from Europe and why there’s an entire black market devoted to illegal cheese.
Isn’t raw milk bad for us?
Well, that’s complicated. The short answer: It can be, if cheesemakers aren’t careful about sanitation. But the truth is that pretty much any raw cheesemaker is obsessive about cleanliness because the stakes are so high. And then again, pasteurization isn’t guaranteed to kill all pathogens either. Furthermore, many people hold the belief that bacteria found in unpasteurized milk actually helps fight disease and dispel allergies.
So is unpasteurized cheese really better?
Lately, there are more and more raw milk supporters who are changing the way that Americans think about unpasteurized cheese. But because of the FDA requirements, those raw milk cheeses must be aged at least 60 days – which means most Americans have never actually tasted, for example, real brie, as it is traditionally made with unpasteurized milk and aged 35-40 days.
But that doesn’t mean you need to smuggle Camembert back from France to have a great French cheese. Plenty of cheesemongers import excellent pasteurized versions of traditionally pasteurized cheeses, and an increasing number of American cheesemakers are producing great raw milk cheeses that meet U.S. laws. Here are a few of my favorites:
Mt Tam by Cowgirl Creamery
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"Eating this little brie-like wheel is truly a sensual experience. Every time I do, it reminds me of sinking my teeth into a slice of baguette slathered with “too much” butter, that yeasty crust crumbling away into a sea of melted cream." . Thank you @cheesesexdeath for this mouthwatering photo and lovely ode to Mt Tam ✨ cheesesexdeath.com/mt-tam-cowgirl-creamery . . . #cowgirlcreamery #cheesesexdeath #mycowgirlcreamery #artisancheese #cheese #cheesechurch #cheeselife #ilovecheese #cheesy #cheeselife #cheeseplate #brie #briecheese #cheese #fromage #mttam #honey #baguette #bread #cheesepairing
If you’re trying to play it safe, but expand your cheese horizons, pick up some Mt Tam by California-based Cowgirl Creamery. This bloomy rind, triple cream cow’s milk cheese has won over the hearts of cheese lovers everywhere, making ‘Best in Show’ at the American Cheese Society Awards in 2003. Mt Tam is made with pasteurized milk, aged around one month, and is made in the European-Style, fitting into the brie family.
Préféré de Nos Montagnes
Want to be classically Parisian? Grab a baguette, some saucisson, and a wheel of Reblochon. Not in Paris? Satisfy those cravings for a classically French, washed rind cheese with Préféré de Nos Montagnes, made in a similar style to the Savoie-born Reblochon. Reblochon is typically made with unpasteurized milk and aged 6-8 weeks. Préféré de Nos Montagnes comes from the Rhône-Alpes region of France and is made with pasteurized milk. Aged for 6-8 weeks, Préféré de Nos Montagnes’ flavor is remarkably similar to Reblochon, with aromas of oaky white wine and mushrooms.
Vacherin Mont d’Or
If you really want to test the boundaries of the FDA, try picking up a wheel of the coveted Vacherin Mont d’Or. This Swiss cow’s milk cheese is seasonal, only “blooming” in the late fall, through April, and comes with a hefty price tag (about $50 for a small wheel). Typically made with raw milk, this version is thermalized, not pasteurized, meaning it’s not heated to quite as high a temperature as pasteurization in an effort to save some of the flavor. The cheese is gooey and woodsy, requiring a spoon to scoop it out of the wooden container. To boot, the cheese must be produced at a minimum elevation of 2,297 feet, per Swiss regulations. The cheese is highly sought after, so mark your calendars now!