This blog post is brought to you by the Cheese of Choice Coalition, a program of the nonprofit organization Oldways that supports the production of artisan, raw-milk, and traditional cheese. Through a combination of advocacy, education, consumer outreach, and community engagement, the CCC works to preserve long-honored cheesemaking traditions and to ensure people everywhere continue to have the freedom to choose their cheese of choice.
On a dreary day a decade ago, 200 pounds of Roquefort cheese sat in the back of a black hearse. It was on its way to meet its maker. Draped in the tricolor flag of France, the benchmark blue cheese was ceremoniously interred six feet under Australian soil while the French national anthem played patriotically in the background. “Liberty, beloved Liberty,” the words of La Marseillaise rightfully lamented. The cheese had fought valiantly against formidable odds; it was a martyr to a righteous cause.
The fromage funeral was the disappointing outcome of a drawn-out battle to allow raw-milk cheese into Australia. The protagonist behind this remarkable event was Will Studd, one of the world’s most adamant defenders of traditional cheese.
With no good deed going unpunished, Will has also been threatened with fines and jail time. He was even labeled a food terrorist by an Australian magazine. Despite a David versus Goliath battle, Will has nonetheless been steadfast in his resolve, and the fate of traditional cheese in Australia and throughout the world is far better for it.
I recently had the chance to chat with this globe-trekking, trailblazing evangelist of traditional cheese.
What first drew you to cheese some forty years ago now, Will?
It all began in London in the early 1970s when I was lucky enough to find a holiday job working in a posh food and wine shop in Belgravia. It was there, for the first time, that I was exposed to the kaleidoscope of flavors to be found in a piece of Swiss Gruyère, freshly cut from a crusted wheel. At the shop I also first experienced the smell of brassica and wet hay found in ripe Camembert de Normandie and began to understand why clothbound farmhouse cheddar was so completely different from plastic-wrapped blocks. These experiences—and other similar ones—were revelatory.
As luck would have it, this was also a period when consumers of my generation were starting to seek out more interesting food—real food—with a genuine sense of place. Organics, macrobiotics, gourmet, even farmhouse—these were the buzzwords of an alternative counterculture heralding the birth of a food revolution which, so many years later, continues to question and challenge innocuous and bland mass-produced food.
At the time, traditional, handmade, regional farm cheese made from raw milk had all but disappeared from England’s culinary landscape due to wartime regulations. And even the European survivors were under threat from EU regulations and consumer apathy. Something had to be done. I was immediately caught up in the excitement of supporting such an important cause.
You’ve been fighting to allow raw milk cheese in Australia for decades. What is the origin of the strict regulations in the land down under?
Until relatively recently Australia was virgin territory for specialist, artisan, and farmhouse cheese due to its distance from Europe and strict quarantine regulations. From the late 1800s, dairy production was focused on producing low-cost cooperative commodity cheese for export rather than traditional cheese on a small scale. [Ed. Read how the US lost Britain’s cheese trade to Oceania here.] When mandatory pasteurization was introduced for cheesemakers during the 1970s, it largely went unquestioned. It was only with the growing consumer interest in artisan cheese over the past two decades that Australians became exposed to a greater range of European imports and local producers began to question why imported aged raw-milk cheese was allowed for sale but local production was banned.
It’s been over ten years since Australian authorities forced you to bury almost 200 pounds of Roquefort. What a shame! I love that you turned it into a spectacle. What inspired you to do so?
There are times when standing up for principles of choice can be seriously risky and emotional, but if you don’t take the risk you get nothing at all. Ensuring the burial was filmed by the public broadcasting channel and covered by the national press was my way of highlighting the ridiculous nature of Australian food regulations. It underlined how they were being used by the food police as a barrier to international trade and an excuse to prohibit the production of local artisan cheese made with raw milk.
There is almost no conclusive rational or scientific argument to support a ban on cheese made from raw milk as long as sound, basic production principles are followed. A combination of ignorance, fear, competition, protection of domestic production, and concerns over international trade are just some of the reasons that government authorities are involved.
The right to enjoy cheese made from raw milk is in my opinion the most important issue facing specialist cheesemakers around the world today. It’s simply not an option to sit back and do nothing. They must survive so that there is still a genuine choice for future generations to enjoy.
I am absolutely delighted to know the Cheese of Choice Coalition is back up and running and committed to saving the rights of consumers to choose raw milk cheese. Oldways founder Dun Gifford was a visionary, and it is a great tribute to his legacy that the CCC is continuing the fight for raw-milk cheese.
Why is it so important to protect traditional and raw milk cheeses?
Flavor, Integrity, and Diversity!
The most important reason for not pasteurizing the milk used for specialty cheesemaking is undoubtedly flavor. You only have to taste raw-milk cheese to know there is a real difference. Every well-made raw milk cheese has an individual depth and complexity of flavor that reflects its land, its maker, and its age. A cheese made from natural raw milk will embody a sense of place with far more integrity than any cheese made with pasteurized milk.
Cheese made from raw milk is also about diversity and sustaining ways of life that go back thousands of years; it assists in the survival of marginal rural areas allowing them to benefit from maintaining their traditions, ancient pastures, and endangered dairy breeds.
Speaking of sustaining rural ways of life and traditional cultures, I am so jealous that you journey all over the world hunting down rare and exquisite cheeses for your television series, Cheese Chasers. What has been your favorite place to visit? Has one cheese stood out amongst the lot?
That is a very hard question and like trying to choose your favorite child. I have enjoyed making every episode of Cheese Chasers, and that includes a lot of strange places and people. In the latest season, the weirdest place was a warehouse in the Minas Gervais region of Brazil that was full of clandestine cheese made from raw milk. Learning how it was made and then smuggled into the big cities was surreal as the dealers were not exactly busting to tell us their story.
There have also been far too many “interesting” cheese experiences in the past fifteen years to pick just one. I am very comfortable with the classics such as Comte and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but some of the strangest cheeses I have encountered include one ripened with maggots in Corsica, goat cheese air-dried in a kid’s stomach in Sardinia, yak’s milk cheese high in the Himalayas of Bhutan, and the ancient paneer market in Kolkata, India. In the latest season I discovered Swedish moose milk cheese for the first time. It was very strong and claimed to be the world’s most expensive. But I was even more surprised to meet a moose up close—such gentle graceful animals, straight out of Shrek. The next day the shooting season started!
The Cheese of Choice Coalition was originally founded in 1999 by Oldways, the American Cheese Society, the Cheese Importers Association of America, and Whole Foods Market in an effort to preserve the rights of individuals to buy unpasteurized (raw-milk) cheese. Revitalized in 2014 as a program of the nonprofit food and nutrition education organization Oldways, the CCC continues to offer a strong voice of industry support and consumer advocacy. Become a member of the Coalition today and show your support for cheese and choice!