Does raw milk cheese pose a risk to health? And does it really taste better? Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy in the UK tells all.
From Parmigiano Reggiano and Roquefort to Brie de Meaux and Comté, many of the iconic, traditional European cheeses proudly state they must be made with raw milk—and as many people will adamantly tell you the cheeses taste better that way.
Yet ask others and they’ll warn that raw milk cheeses are risky and dangerous.
Here at The Courtyard Dairy, we take raw milk cheeses very seriously: 80 percent of what we do is raw milk, and long-term, we’d like to go almost exclusively raw milk with what we sell. But we aren’t so obstinate as to think that raw milk cheese necessarily means better cheese. And we are aware of the risk in making and selling raw milk cheese—one that has to be thought about and reduced to make a safe product
So what is the truth–does raw milk cheese pose a risk to health? And does raw milk cheese really taste any better?
What Effect Does Raw Milk Have On Flavor?
By leaving bacteria alive, the cheesemaker can then harness the natural flavor that bacteria can impart—and it’s unique to that farm’s milk. This creates a cheese that is distinct and impossible to copy—a real expression of the terroir of an individual farm. This is why the cheesemongers at The Courtyard Dairy support and encourage it, and also why so many classic European cheeses insist on it.Well, when it comes to taste, it’s not that black and white, I’m afraid! The reason for championing raw milk cheese, is, if it is done properly, the cheesemaker can capture the unique nature of that one farm by way of all the bacteria and microflora left in the milk (for most cheese, the milk is pasteurized by heating up to 161.6°F for 15 seconds to kill all bacteria).
Still, raw milk cheese doesn’t always taste better. Using raw milk is one of many factors of cheesemaking, along with the feed, cheesemaking practice, cow breed, and so on. Think of it a bit like buying a steak: It may be the best quality beef in the world–but it’s still got to be cooked. It’s like that with raw milk; you may have the best raw milk in the world, but you’ve still got to make it into cheese and age it. The other factors involved in cheesemaking are equally important. This is why you can make some amazing cheeses from pasteurized milk, and why there are also some flavorless raw milk cheeses.
But with amazing raw milk and all the other factors of cheesemaking aligned, cheesemakers have the potential to make something truly special, flavorful, and unique to a farm—for me, that’s the fundamental reason why farmhouse cheese is amazing and worth making.
What About the Risks Posed by Raw Milk?
Most of our cheesemakers use their milk fresh everyday, so it does not hang around cold. Since the milk comes from their own farms, they also have control over their animal husbandry, milking procedures, and dairy hygiene.With raw milk, there is a greater responsibility to think harder about public health. Skipping pasteurization also misses a a control point that could eliminate pathogens: bad bacteria that can cause illness. That’s why, at The Courtyard Dairy, we only work with people really making cheese on their own farm. The reason for this is their control over the milk.
Keeping milk is the main problem, as this bacteria grows the longer you keep milk before adding culture. At these lower temperatures pathogenic and degenerative bacteria like Pseudomonas can still operate on the milk using up the resources, whereas lactic acid and yeasts will not really start to operate until a higher temperature. Using the milk while it’s fresh allows you to negate the milk sitting around and these other bacteria working on it. It is also more environmentally friendly as you don’t have to refrigerate milk to then warm it back up to make cheese. Stichelton, Fellstone, Baron Bigod, and St. James both only use morning milk for this reason and most other cheesemakers I work with use milk from only the night before and that morning to minimize the keep time to only about 12 hours.
What Are Farmers Doing to Reduce this Risk?
Most “bad” bacteria are environmental contaminants–which means they are from the environment and are cross-contaminated into the milk. Being aware of these potential contaminants allows cheesemakers to operate in a way that reduces cross-contamination. For example, although the cheesemaking process is important, if you talk to Graham Kirkham, of Lancashire fame, he will talk more about his “five-star cow housing” in order to reduce this risk. For Graham, this means taking care of how his cows are housed: for example, what they sleep on and how he keeps the environment clean by providing a drier environment with more space and less contaminant from dirt and fecal contaminants.
We also try and work with smaller farms—our average sized farm is 60 cows—where it’s easier for farmers to notice unhealthy animals and easier to keep sheds, milking parlors, waiting areas, and more clean and tidy, with a lower volume of animals passing through.
If someone was buying raw milk from elsewhere, mixing multiple milk sources, not using fresh milk, not being on-site and seeing farming practices, or any combination of those factors, then, I would like to see it pasteurized. In that case, it is necessary for larger manufacture as they cannot manage the risk of contamination as easily. But small scale farms should be able to.
The more extreme cheesemakers approach each of the above points, the less risk they create in their cheese—hence why even pregnant women are advised they can eat raw milk versions of cheddar and parmesan.
We (and hundreds of others) have not built a business up from selling a dangerous product. In the last five years alone, we’ve sold over 330,000 pounds of raw milk cheese–and we are a tiny drop in the ocean in terms of raw milk cheese!
All in all, we believe that raw milk cheese is a fabulous product. When it is produced in a carefully thought out way, it is unique, tasty, and safe.