Until recently, Scrapple and I had been focused on the idea of producing aged raw milk cheeses. It made sense to make the most of the delicious and nutrient rich milk our pastured cows would produce and it fit with our ideals and vision for Little Seed.
I say "until recently" because, well, we've started to consider the option of pasteurization for a small percentage of our cheesemaking milk supply. Why?
Originally we had planned on working with cow's milk exclusively. Now that we've found our farm and come to know the land our animals will be grazing, we've realized that it would be best to have goats as well as cows. There's a lot of acreage on our farm that, while currently not grazeable by cows, would be browsing paradise for goats. We love the idea of working with goats to improve the land and now we'll have the chance.
We hadn't thought much about goat's milk until about 2 months ago. I love the idea of developing some mixed milk cheeses. A tomme, a blue, or even a cheddar could be interesting, and for the first few weeks I mostly thought about creating those cheeses. That was before I started my internship a month ago in the subterranean caves of a cheese shop (joy!).
I should really say, that was before I laid my hands (and teeth) on dozens of the best bloomy rind goat cheeses in the world - only available in the US in their pasteurized form. While we're not huge fans of cow's milk bloomies, both Scrapple and I love a snowy suede-rinded goat cheese. If we're going to have the milk, we thought, why not take advantage and make one? We'll only be creating 3 or 4 cheeses and it would be nice if they were all very different from each other. A bloomy or brainy (geotrichum) rind would be a great addition! We love to eat them and the more I worked with them, the more I couldn't help but think about the fact that, from a business perspective, they might make a lot of sense. They have a fast turnaround, people love them (they're not as tricky a sell as a washed rind "stinker"), they have a higher yield per # of milk, they're aged and ready to sell in weeks instead of months (saving energy in the caves and helping cash flow), and they can command a solid retail price.
So why not make some raw milk bloomies? Well, although it can be done and some people do it, I have to question whether essentially over-aging just for the sake of keeping it raw the best thing to do. Consider these points made by Catherine Donnelly, a research professor in microbiology and associate director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) in a recent Culture Magazine feature about Listeria (a very good read):
"The 60-day aging rule was really intended to be applied to cheeses that as they age become hostile to microbial pathogens—like cheddar and hard-ripened ones. Now with all the artisan cheese being produced in the United States, cheesemakers must apply the 60-day rule to such cheeses as soft-ripened cheeses that were never designed to use aging to achieve safety. So in a Camembert, for example, holding that cheese for 60 days actually increases its health risk substantially. If you think about France, where they sell Camembert or Brie at 30 days, there’s a much lower risk of Listeria contamination and growth in their soft-ripened cheese. In fact, in France you can’t even sell an AOC Camembert beyond 59 days because the risk is considered to be so great."
Hmmm. The last thing we want to do is make things even tougher for raw cheese artisans, including ourselves, by creating a potentially dangerous cheese that could cause an outbreak.
Previously, pasteurization had also seemed extremely cost prohibitive on a small scale. A 100 gallon batch pasteurizer can be quite expensive and we won't be in a position to purchase one right out of the gate. Then, in my search for a used bulk tank, I realized that most of the tanks I was looking at could easily be converted to a pasteurizer by adding a chart recorder and thermometer for a fraction (about 1/10) of the cost. In a workshop I attended, Peter Dixon had mentioned cheesemakers working with their regulatory agencies to do this and I realized that it could possibly be an option for us. This made it much easier to consider pasteurization for a small portion of our milk. It would quickly pay for itself and help us sustain ourselves while the rest of our cheeses are aging away in all of their raw glory for months and months and could give us the financial flexibility to create some very special aged cheeses without having to stress so much about holding them for so long.
All of that said, we're still not sure if we want to go down that road. The reality is that we wish we could make any cheese we wanted from raw milk. When milk comes directly from the cow, it’s a complete food. It is rich in proteins, good (omega 3) fats, helpful digestive enzymes, and bacteria that our body needs to function. In its raw state, milk and cheese from grass fed animals also is a subtle reflection of the land they have been grazing, the season, and the animal’s own natural cycle. The bacteria naturally present in raw milk from healthy animals are also unique and the flavors and textures they produce while aging can create something extraordinary. When pasteurized, the milk becomes sterile and although it is still of very high quality, that sense of "terroir" becomes almost nonexistent.
Would pasteurizing some of our milk to make some "legal" bloomies take away from our ideals and interfere with the pursuit of our vision at Little Seed? No. We would still make sure our animals were outside on pasture and living happy and healthy lives. Is it tough to comply with a law that you fundamentally disagree with? Yes, but the rules are the rules and we'll still support the legalization of your right to consume the food you want.
What do you think?