There's nothing like the subject of raw milk cheese to make a group conversation turn very interesting in a very short time.
It's like having a big family dinner and someone starts talking about politics. Voices raise, people stand up with arms akimbo arguing with the person across the table, and at some point, the family patriarch says "Enough!" and changes the subject. Everybody sits back down, the meal continues, and we all eventually leave the room shoulder to shoulder, sticking together as family once more.
That was my experience yesterday, as about 30 cheesemakers, industry experts and state regulators gathered for a "discovery session" on Wisconsin raw milk cheese, sponsored by the Dairy Business Innovation Center (full disclaimer - I do consultant work for this group).
With about 20 cheese plants making at least one type of raw milk cheese in Wisconsin, the state is on the forefront of the subject and is in the position to potentially better define what exactly is a "raw milk cheese."
The Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association defines raw milk cheese as: "Cheese produced from milk that, prior to setting the curd, has not been heated above the temperature of the milk (104°F, 40°C) at the time of milking and that the cheese produced from that milk shall be aged for 60 days or longer at a temperature of not less than 35°F (2°C) in accordance with US FDA regulations."
U.S. cheesemakers, however, have a much looser definition of raw milk cheese, and in Wisconsin, you can label pretty much any cheese that is not pasteurized as "raw milk". In fact, the state Dept. of Agriculture did a survey of 20 plants producing raw milk cheese, and asked what temperature each plant heats their milk to and for how long. Answers ranged everywhere from "keep it at the temperature that comes out of the cow and never heat" to "88 degrees for 50 minutes" to "110 degrees for 60 minutes " to "160 degrees for 16 seconds." By the way, the definition of pasteurization is heating the milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds.
So some of these cheesemakers are coming pretty close to actually pasteurizing their milk and still labeling it as raw milk cheese, which by the way, really irked a few of the purist raw milk cheesemakers in the session. Their argument, and to which I agree, is there really should be two labels for raw milk cheese. One for actual raw milk cheese, made to the specifications of the Raw Milk Cheese Association (not heated above the natural temperature from which it comes from the cow), and one for cheesemakers who want to do some sort of heat treatment without getting to the magic number of 161 degrees. Perhaps they could state something on the label, such as: "Raw Milk Cheese, partially heat treated".
At least then the consumer would know what they're getting. After all, the entire point most of us buy raw milk cheese is because of the flavor. As Greg O'Neill, of Pastoral, said yesterday, "Raw milk cheeses tend not to be one-note. They have more complexity from start to finish. Pasteurization can take away some of the nuances that true cheese connoisseurs are looking for."
At the end of the session, after tempers had cooled, smiles had returned to faces, and conversations started to return to other topics, our friend Gigi, a very bright graduate student from France who is in America this summer doing a research report on raw milk cheese, said it best: "You don't eat cheese because you are hungry. You eat it for the pleasure."
Amen, French sister.