The demand for artisanal cheeses is booming. With new federal regulations concerning health concerns looming, some producers and consumers are worried it might become harder to get raw milk cheeses.
WHYY's Arts and Culture reporter Peter Crimmins chatted with Health and Science reporter Carolyn Beeler, who recently visited the Yellow Spring Farm in Chester County, where Al Renzi makes goat cheese.
Carolyn Beeler: The number of permitted raw milk cheese producers in Pennsylvania has quadrupled in the last five years. Producers and some foodies say unpasteurized milk—milk that hasn't been heated to kill harmful bacteria—makes the most delicious cheeses. Al Renzi, a maker of goat cheese at Yellow Spring Farm in Chester County, senses "a level of butteriness, the texture is richer, the flavors are deeper."
Peter Crimmins: They say you can taste the terroir—which in this case means "barnyard." I recently had an aged raw-milk cheddar that tasted like hoof and hay—the same way the 4-H Club yard at the county fair smells. To foodies, it's hog-heaven.
CB: Right. Renzi says some of those very foodies in his CSA have been requesting more raw-milk cheeses. He sees it as part of the rising demand for minimally processed foods. But the 60-year-old federal regulation for raw milk cheeses is being revised, and some people are worried it might make raw milk cheeses harder to find, or even ban them outright.
PC: So those well-heeled foodies—willing to spend 35 bucks on a pound of artisanal cheese—might not get that precious taste of the barnyard floor. What's so terrible about raw-milk cheese that the Feds feel a need to block it?
CB: Well right now the Food and Drug Administration requires raw milk cheeses to be aged 60 days. That rule was enacted in 1950, and Kerry Kaylegian, with Penn State University's food science program, says "it was a sort-of obscure cut-off, sort-of arbitrary." The theory then was that dangerous pathogens in the cheese would die as the cheese dried out, but E. coli and Listeria were not even on the radar back then. Scientists have known for decades that salmonella can survive in cheese for much longer than 60 days.
PC: Oof. You really need to trust your farmer. Renzi has his own self-policing methods constantly re-check his raw-milk cultures for pathogens above and beyond standard regulations. But farmers have been making raw-milk cheese for millennia! How much of a threat is this, really?
CB: The FDA says it is "reviewing the scientific basis" for the 60-day rule, and hopes to propose a new one by the end of the year. But recently, two separate outbreaks of E. coli in raw milk cheeses sickened 46 people across the country and landed 16 in the hospital in 2010. Though the FDA started looking at the rule before the outbreaks, Kaylegian said the outbreaks "made people sit up and take notice" that maybe the rule based on old science should be reviewed. She said she still eats raw-milk cheeses because she loves the way they taste—she is just aware of the risk she is taking and looks for producers she trusts.
PC: Aha! So even the policers are partaking. The lure of cheese is strong. And (dare I say?) carnal. A local cheese blogger—Madame Fromage—calls herself a "digital cheese courtesan," giving cheese lovers what her forebears gave their own lovers: education and allure. She says the French do it better. "You can go and have them in France, a wonderful raw-milk brie, and you come here and people wonder, 'Why doesn't it taste the same?'" said Tenaya Darlington, a.k.a. Madam Fromage. "You can't import them, and local cheese makers can't sell them."
CB: Can't sell them. But I bet Madame Fromage gets her hands on them somehow...
PC: Wink, wink. As a cheese courtesan, relationships are her business. Young, raw-milk cheese is illegal to sell, but not illegal to make. Darlington is on the tip when a local dairy farmer rolls out some under-the-table chevre. Those kinds of direct, consumer-to-farmer relationships don't happen without a middleman. Five years ago Emilio Magnucci became that man.
CB: Mr. Magnucci?
PC: The DiBruno Brother's Vice President of Product Pioneering.
CB: What a title.
PC: He lives up to it. A few years ago he found that some of the area's great dairy farmers were making boring cheeses. Hand-made, grass-fed, small-batch local cheeses are expensive, but nobody wants to pay $20 for a block of cheddar, no matter how lovingly made. So he pushed the local talent to get funky with it. Make cheese nobody has heard of. "They don't know what they have," said Magnucci. "They don't understand how great their cheeses are, how people today want that kind of farmstead product—raising animals, creating curds—people want to support that."
CB: Al Renzi seems to be doing well with his cheeses, including varieties that are bathed in beer and flavored with sycamore leaves from his property. Think that's funky enough for Magnucci?
PC: It's all in the name, my friend. In Renzi's cold cheese room, at Yellow Springs Farm, wheels of beer-bathed cheese take on a yellowish mold. He calls it "Yellow Brick Road." But this cheese by any name would smell as stinky.
Your thoughts: Do you love artisanal cheeses? Will you spend more for something that doesn't come sold as an orange brick in the dairy case of your local supermarket? What are some of the sources, local and otherwise, you have found useful for finding good cheese? (Nothing illegal, of course!)