American makers of raw-milk cheese, having survived an unwarranted health scare, are creating products that rival Europe's.
ALL year the talk at any gathering of people who care about artisan-made foods has turned to the threat to raw-milk cheeses. This seemingly abstruse subject is of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about cheese -- real cheese, which suggests the grass, the earth, and the air of the place where it was made. Losing the chance to make and buy raw-milk cheese would mean losing most of the world's great cheeses. It would mean no more Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of cheeses; no more farmhouse Cheddar from England or Vermont; no more true Swiss cheese (Gruyère) or Roquefort.
It's hard to engage non-food people in urgent talk about raw milk, which seems like a dangerous relic of the pre-Pasteur past. It's even harder to get people to try a sip, as I discovered on a visit to Martha's Vineyard last summer, which began with stops at local farms to collect ingredients for a reunion lunch. One of the farms was a state-certified raw-milk dairy, and after lunch I proudly passed around a creamer full of raw whole milk to go with coffee. My friends, who I knew loved milk, suddenly decided that they'd really always preferred their coffee black.
I couldn't blame them. But I happen to trust raw milk instinctively, having grown up in a dairy-farming town, and I remember as one of the greatest treats imaginable the tea a family friend served with milk warm from the cow. Fear of fresh food seems to mount by the day, however, fueled by often-misleading reports. The fight I think worth fighting is not for raw "fluid" milk, as fresh milk is called, but for cheese made with raw milk, which concentrates its subtle flavors.
Great cheese has always been made with raw milk, and until World War II almost all American cheese was made with it. Disease outbreaks traceable to aged cheese have historically been rare, because the lactic acid in milk and the salt used to flavor and preserve cheese kill most harmful bacteria. Pasteurization for fluid milk has been the rule for a century, but the use of raw milk in American cheese was so normal that no law regulating it existed until 1949, when experienced cheesemakers were in short supply. That year a law was written requiring that cheese made with raw milk be aged a minimum of sixty days at 35°F -- the time and temperature then considered sufficient to kill most harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli; the sixty-day rule was eventually extended to imported cheese. Over time more than forty states, particularly those with big cheese industries, passed laws requiring pasteurization for cheeses aged less than sixty days. But real, raw-milk cheese has increasingly flourished in states associated with craft, including Vermont, Wisconsin, New York, and California.
The loose regulatory system held until 1998, when a trade group representing industrial American cheese proposed that all U.S. cheese, fresh and aged, be defined by law as beginning with pasteurized milk. This makes perfect sense for a cheese factory, which produces tens of thousands of pounds of cheese a day and combines tanks of milk from dozens of dairies, whose cleanliness the factory can't possibly monitor. It makes no sense for an individual cheesemaker who works with milk from his or her own small herd of cows, sheep, or goats, and whose goal is to produce the best cheese possible. Pasteurization equipment is very expensive, and is unnecessary if the dairy follows sensible sanitation guidelines. The American Cheese Society, which represents artisan cheesemakers, worried that this salvo might presage an all-out war against raw milk. It formed a committee to oppose mandatory pasteurization.
Little more was heard of the cheese-industry proposal, but rumors that the government might clamp down began to spread in the fall of last year, after the Food and Drug Administration notified the American Cheese Society that it was looking into whether pathogens in raw-milk cheese are able to survive the sixty days of aging. If the results seem to warrant action, the FDA could require pasteurization for all cheese -- both domestic and imported. Such a decision was years off, the FDA said reassuringly of this alarming prospect; the preliminary study was only part of an understandable updating of a fifty-year-old law.
Battle lines were drawn. Distinctive artisan-made cheeses hardly repay farmers as it is. Mandatory pasteurization would mean the end of a fledgling movement in this country toward cheeses made by hand with milk from one herd. It would also end imports of indispensable cheeses.
Defenders and sellers of raw-milk cheese, by nature not a contentious lot, decided that the time had come to speak out. Last spring the American Cheese Society joined forces with Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit activist "brain trust" in Boston that is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and traditional foods. The resulting Cheese of Choice Coalition is trying to forestall new laws by proposing that artisan cheesemakers follow the stringent safety practices in government-monitored HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) guidelines, which have already been widely adopted by European cheesemakers; the Clinton Administration has imposed HACCP on the meat, poultry, and seafood industries.
The CCC began mounting petition campaigns and staging "awareness events," where free chunks of cheese are deemed more effective weapons than placards and picket lines. (To add your name to the list, consult www.oldwayspt.org.) Campaign brochures handed out along with cheese enumerate the health and flavor benefits of unpasteurized milk, and also point out that many publicized disease outbreaks linked to cheese have been traced to unaged Mexican-style mild white cheeses illegally produced in home kitchens -- sometimes starting with pasteurized milk. Pasteurized milk, in fact, can be more vulnerable to pathogens than raw milk, the CCC warns, because it has been robbed of its natural disease-resisting bacteria.
I observed the campaign at a remove, thinking that any possible bans were years away. I could still buy at local stores raw-milk cheeses aged for more than two months. U.S. import restrictions and tariffs were menacing, but they were apparently only part of larger trade skirmishes and anyway were continually being postponed and likely to be temporary.
Then, in a matter of a few midsummer days, the future of one of my favorite American cheeses was threatened by the kind of news story that artisan cheesemakers fear will be the excuse for a fast, no-questions-asked pasteurization law. I got in a car and headed for Vermont.
TO my mind, sheep's-milk cheese puts most cow's-milk cheese to shame. (I confess to finding most goat's-milk cheese too goaty.) I cannot resist even a middling Spanish manchego or a young Sardinian or Tuscan pecorino, sheep's-milk all -- let alone the irresistible sheep's-milk ricotta, the only base for true cannolis. Starting in the early 1990s the makers of Vermont Shepherd, a young couple named Cindy and David Major, near Putney, in southern Vermont, produced a credible challenge to centuries-old European sheep's-milk cheeses. The sudden threat to their newfound achievement illustrated why the members of the Cheese of Choice Coalition claim that the FDA is "just one scare away" from imposing mandatory pasteurization.
The problem, in bare outline, began in 1996, in the northern part of the state, when a pair of enthusiastic beginners at sheep farming, with the backing of a very rich and well-meaning farmer, imported sheep from Belgium to make cheese. The sheep they selected were champion milk producers, especially in comparison with traditional breeds: the Majors and other Vermont farmers were milking sheep that had been bred for wool and meat. The milk-producing capacity of these established Vermont breeds was being improved, but importing animals that had been bred solely to produce milk seemed like a long-overdue idea.
Veterinarians from the U.S. Department of Agriculture feared that some of the imported sheep might have been given feed contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the dreaded "mad-cow disease." Scrapie, a closely related disease that affects sheep's brains, has been recorded here since the 1940s, but BSE has never appeared in this country. The USDA sees its mission as eradicating any possible outbreak anywhere in its jurisdiction, and this past July it told the northern-Vermont farmers that it wanted to destroy the imported sheep and their progeny. The farmers mounted a sympathy campaign, telling the press that their children had named all the sheep; how could the government slaughter their pets? The rich backer succeeded in keeping the USDA at bay, claiming that its tests were ambiguous. As of mid-October, three months after the USDA announced its intentions, the imported sheep were still alive and in quarantine. But Vermont's long-established domestic sheep flocks were under a graver and longer-term threat if even a trace of BSE transmitted through infected feed was confirmed in a tissue sample from a single imported sheep or one of its descendants. (The journalist Emily Green, who has covered mad-cow disease for the past ten years, published a comprehensive history of the affair in the Los Angeles Times in September.)
The intensive publicity wreaked havoc on Vermont Shepherd's business. Orders for its cheese dropped by more than half during the two weeks the story was appearing daily in newspapers and on news broadcasts -- even though scrapie, unlike mad-cow disease, has never been shown to infect people; even though mad-cow disease has never been shown to be or even suspected of being transmitted through milk or cheese; and, most important, even though the Vermont Shepherd sheep were completely unrelated to the imported flock. Any product named Vermont Shepherd suddenly seemed risky, even potentially deadly -- and this at a moment when the American public has seemingly decided that the only acceptable risk is no risk at all. A few more weeks of the story, or the definitive linking of mad-cow disease with a single Vermont sheep, and a decade of work and a number of farms might have been lost.
The day was saved by countervailing favorable publicity. In mid-August the American Cheese Society gave Vermont Shepherd its best-of-show award, which is big news in the cheese-selling world and was more than enough to bring orders back well above their previous levels. This was no sympathy prize. The society conducts its tastings blind, and it had already given Vermont Shepherd the award for best farmhouse cheese in five out of seven years -- including the very first year the Majors entered, 1993.
I had wanted to visit the cheesemakers ever since I first tasted Vermont Shepherd. I came away from my brief trip with renewed respect for the results that Americans have achieved, following European models and convinced that small and scrupulous food producers should not fall victim to laws intended to clean up after careless industry.
THE milking parlor at Major Farm, a weathered wood cabin on a long and verdant rise, looks like an illustration for a lullaby about counting sheep. Fourteen sheep at a time scamper from an adjoining barn onto a knee-high platform and calmly put their heads into pink-painted metal headlocks so that they can be milked. Then David Major pulls a lever like the one on a voting booth to release the sheep, who scamper out as the next fourteen come in. Major told me that he bought the U.S. rights to this English milking system, which he sells here; I didn't ask whether it comes only in pink.
After studying international development at Harvard, Major returned in 1983 to his parents' farm, where he had grown up helping tend and shear sheep. He wanted to find a way to make the farm pay for itself, something it had never done (David's father, Randolph, sold real estate to support it), and to help imperiled neighboring farms as well. He worked at a woolen mill in Putney. But his salary, and shearing and slaughtering, were not enough.
Cindy Schwartz grew up in New York City, where she learned about processing and selling milk, yogurt, and cheese at her father's dairy business in Queens. Soon after she began attending Marlboro College, she met David Major at a contra dance in Brattleboro (theirs is an only-in-Vermont story). Six weeks later she was in a near-fatal bicycle accident, and their love at first sight outlasted the three years it took her to recuperate; the couple married and settled at Major Farm.
Cindy's father was the one who made the outlandish suggestion that the Majors milk their sheep. Two of the world's best-known and best-selling cheeses, he pointed out -- Roquefort and pecorino -- were made from sheep's milk. Why not try cheesemaking?
For a number of years, Cindy told me, she tried making one style of cheese after another, with dismal results. "The Gouda wasn't good," she said, "and the bleu wouldn't turn blue. I buried a lot of cheese in the manure pile." She poured out her heart in a letter to Patrick Rance, the godfather of the revival of farmhouse cheeses in England and elsewhere. He advised her to visit the Pyrenees, where geographic, climatic, and possibly economic conditions were similar to the ones she had described.
Using Rance's The French Cheese Book as an address book, and a French-speaking student who had lived with them for a summer as a translator, the couple went on tour in France in 1992. They packed a rented car with their two small children, samples of maple syrup from the sugar house on Major Farm, photographs of the farm and their sheep, and bits of experimental cheese. "The French people were so warm and receptive," Cindy said, fighting my every stereotype. "They really wanted to teach us how to do it right." This might have been because they tasted her samples. "How threatening can two people be," she asked, "with little kids and bad cheese?"
Following the very specific advice she received, Cindy started making a cut-curd, natural-rind cheese aged for four months. The process of cutting curds into small cubes and stacking them into circular forms is like the process used to make Cheddar and other English farmhouse cheeses; a natural rind means that the exterior is not inoculated with a specific mold but is aged under controlled conditions so that protective and flavor-giving white molds form, and brushed daily so that undesirable molds do not.
The next year, just before attending the American Cheese Society conference (where she had never dared enter one of her cheeses), Cindy chose the darkest and ugliest of her first group of just-ripened rounds from which to take a sample, so as not to jinx things. "Oh my gosh," she said to me, recalling her first mouthful. "It tasted so rich, creamy, and sweet. I just knew we'd finally figured it out." After Vermont Shepherd received the society's blue ribbon, Major Farm couldn't fill all its orders.
This was a problem not just in the company's first years. The Majors wanted to make cheese only from grazing sheep, and David encouraged the growth of red clover, alfalfa, and various grasses on his pastures, in order to give the milk a wide range of flavors. In the cool Vermont climate sheep graze and produce milk for only six months a year. I remember searching for Vermont Shepherd at Formaggio Kitchen, a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was an early buyer and promoter of the cheese (I first met the Majors there), and often being told they had just sold out and wouldn't have it in again for several months.
The Majors saw their inability to meet the demand as a chance to assist fellow farmers. With the help of grants from the state agricultural department and the Vermont Land Trust they set up a teaching center to show neighboring sheep farmers how to make cheese. They built a ripening "cave" -- really a closed cheese-storage room with controlled temperature and humidity -- where it would all be aged. Five farms within a thirty-five-mile radius of Major Farm now make cheese three times a week using the Majors' recipe. They deliver seven-day-old rounds to the cave, where Cindy and David brush them daily. After four months a panel of three rates each of the cheeses; only the highest-scoring ones are sold as Vermont Shepherd. (Slightly lower-scoring cheeses are sold under the name Shepherd's Tomme, and the remainder, Cindy Major told me, go to the manure pile.) The system is based on one used by a Swiss mountain cooperative called L'Etivaz, which makes Gruyère.
Very admirable in theory, this system has had mixed results in practice. Although the grasses and climate are similar on all six farms, and all six follow the same recipe, and the Majors regularly send technical advisers to the five other farms during production season and age all the cheese themselves, the cheeses varied notably in flavor when I tasted a few samples from different farms on my visit. Some were mushroomy and positively earthy; some were much more aggressively flavored and sharply salty than the mild, creamy cheese that made Vermont Shepherd's name.
I liked the earthy examples but liked better the Majors' own cheese, which had the sweet roundness I remembered. And the cheese I liked best was from a farm called Utopia (in case I had forgotten I was in Vermont). Those who know can recognize which of the six farms made a cheese by an insignia stamped on the rind, but most buyers go by just the Vermont Shepherd name. You can order the cheese in three-pound half wheels at 802-387-4473 or www.vermontshepherd.com or in smaller quantities from Formaggio Kitchen, at 888-212-3224.
Two more U.S. artisan-made cheeses I can't resist mentioning: Ig Vella's truly great Dry Monterey Jack, which is made in Sonoma, in northern California, and is the closest thing outside Italy to Parmigiano-Reggiano (available at 800-848-0505 or www.zingermans.com), and the wonderful fresh and aged cheeses made by the Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods, in Point Reyes, California (415-663-9335).
The only risk worth mentioning is that you might not receive a chunk of one of these cheeses at its absolute peak -- a risk inherent in any handmade food. Matthew Rubiner, a cheese consultant in Cambridge and an early admirer of Vermont Shepherd, recently told me that Vermont Shepherd "represents everything that's both wonderful and problematic" about artisan cheese in this country, by which he meant the variability by farm; also, the average price is higher than that of many comparable European cheeses. "When it's well made it can be sublime," Rubiner added, saying that he was happy to have voted for Vermont Shepherd to receive the best-of-show award last summer.
I very willingly pay the higher price for artisan-made American cheeses that can show up their European cousins. These are foods, and traditions both old and new, worth fighting for. The recent unwarranted scares have made me join the fray.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
Illustration by Robert Crawford.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Craftsman Cheese - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 109-112.