What’s the big deal with unpasteurised cheese?
Take a look in a supermarket and you would never know there was such a thing as raw cheese. Take a look at our counter and you would hardly know there was such a thing as pasteurised cheese. We are all for choice, and for some people, at some times in their lives, the choice has to be pasteurised. But for the rest of us, what is the point of unpasteurised cheese? Surely pasteurisation, which kills off all the bacteria in the milk is a good thing, on the better safe than sorry argument? The hundreds of producers of unpasteurised cheeses say that:
A) there is no evidence that pasteurised is any safer
B) that our cheese tastes better
Here we must thank Yakult and its advertising company, which has poured millions of pounds into hammering home the concept of friendly bacteria. For us good bacteria is what gives cheese all its wonderful subtleties of flavour. As long ago as the 1890s scientists in Somerset realised contaminated milk made bad cheese and therefore hygienic conditions in the dairy were paramount. But the same scientists also noted that neighbouring pastures produced differing tasting milk, and therefore delightfully different shades of cheese. Sadly the urge to cleansing sacrificed the good bacteria to get at the bad. What followed were decades of mass produced cheeses that were bland and uniform, only generically worthy of their descriptions as Cheddars, Cheshires, Leicesters or Gloucesters.
What it springs from the earth is what creates the cheese
We had killed everything that came into the cheese via the soil, the vegetation, the rain and the weather. Everything in fact that begins the food chain that ends in the vast range of flavours and textures and aromas now available. It’s what the French winemakers refer to as terroir, the understanding that what it springs from is what creates the cheese. Kill that miracle of bacteria, and you kill the essence of the cheese. The big battle has been to persuade the regulators that it is safe, that by the time the cheese has matured in the cool and dark, with its salt content working away, the risk of any bacteria still being active when it is eaten is minuscule. Think of the food poisoning dangers of chicken as something akin to an atomic bomb, and the risk from unpasteurised cheeses is about as hazardous as the noise from a cap gun. It has not been easy.
Fighting the fight
If you want to see how hard, and at what personal cost people have fought to bring us these beauties, look at Humphrey Errington. The creator of faint-with-pleasure blues, he had two years production confiscated and condemned by his local council, and was refused the right to have the cheese tested by an independent analyst. At one point the council even argued it had no legal necessity to act in a reasonable way towards him. Read the story at www.erringtoncheese.co.uk and weep.
Old attitudes die hard
But overturning old attitudes is a long old slog. The worm that infested pigs, making it necessary to only eat well-cooked pork, has long been vanquished, and it is quite safe to eat it medium rare. But even meat industry experts who have been saying so for decades accept they have yet to get their message across – and that comes with every kind of official backing. Look to the stats for food poisoning and the greatest threat comes from poultry, followed by mixed foods, crustaceans and shellfish, eggs, vegetables (deadly things, vegetables) rice, condiments, and sauces, with all dairy products lumped together, coming a whisker ahead of water. In 1996 there were 516 reported food poising cases in the UK. 17 related to milk and dairy, none of those relating to unpasteurised cheese. Water also accounted for 17 cases. Which, any way you play the statistical game, still places water way above unpasteurised cheese as a danger, with chicken looming like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse over our future health and even survival.
OK, chicken has not wiped out mankind. And how much less so has unpasteurised cheese? The French refer not to pasteurized milk but lait cru, raw milk. We don’t rate the word raw in Britain – raw food? Raw sex? Steady on there! But why steady on when the result is a range of flavours that burst or gently, seductively ravish your taste buds? Cheese should not be a tasteless base to divide to slices of bread or act as a base for chutneys and pickles.
Cheese should bring a smile to your face…
and an irrational sense of contentment and happiness. If it doesn’t do that, what is its point? It also means, or course, that the dairy farmers must take special care of their cows and goats to ensure they are as healthy as can be, and that their milk tastes tip top. The grass must be rich, and long enough for the cows to curl their tongues around it to yank it from the ground. And in all those months when there is not enough fresh grass, the supplementary feeds must be so skilfully mixed that that flavour changes as little as possible. Kale, turnips, sugar beet tops can all taint the milk. So other and more expensive feeds must be found.
95% of making unpasturised cheese is down to the cows and what they eat
Steve and Karen Reynolds of Staplehurst, Kent, are dairy farmers first and foremost. Steve believes that almost all the hard work that goes into a great cheese is done by the time he has milked his cows. “When it comes to unpasteurised cheeses 95% of making cheese is down to the cows and what they eat. The cheesemaker just puts it in a vat, stirs it, cuts it up and puts it in a mould. And I’m a cheesemaker saying that!”.
Debbie Vernon has a highly enjoyable and informative blog on her herd of goats outside Faversham, Kent. http://elliesdairy.blogspot.co.uk/
UK Unpasturised cheese makers
Take a look at their websites. These are people who want to make something that lifts the spirits, that they can stand in front of and be proud of. Because none of them are going to be standing proudly in front of a Ferrari on the drive to their country mansions and arguing the end justifies the means.
They are all still swimming against the tide and can, when it comes to it, be cantankerous, stubborn and opiniated. But get them together at competitions, at artisan cheesemakers fairs, and the comradeship is deep and genuine.
These are some of the makers whose cheese we open every week on our counter with gleeful pleasure. Find out more on their sites.
Food for further thought:
Article By George Ward Cheese Makers of Canterbury