THE RAW MILK QUANDARY
Cheese made with raw, i.e., unpasteurized, milk ensures rich taste, high production standards, and local authenticity, all reasons why Slow Food stresses its importance in cheese making. Slow Food is so convinced that it introduced a new master’s degree in raw milk and cheese to be offered at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo starting in January 2021. The course will last a year, during which time students will examine the entire production cycle, from animals and their habitat to the phases of milk and cheese production to product sales and consumer behavior.
In France, raw milk cheeses make up about 18 percent of the country’s total cheese production, and well-known French cheeses, such as Camembert and Brie, have been made from raw milk for centuries.
In certain other countries, including Brazil and Armenia, raw milk cheeses can be produced for internal consumption but cannot be exported.
The UK is somewhere in the middle. Italian-born Alessandro Grano has been living in London for 18 years and is head chef at La Fromagerie, a London cheesemonger. He reports that many English still see raw milk as “not safe to eat, based on ignorance,” but he was personally won over when he tasted his first farmhouse Cheddar made with raw milk. “You can taste the notes of fresh milk in a raw milk cheese and sense what the cows ate, the grass they chewed.”
Over the last decade, Grano has seen changes in his adopted country: the appetite for raw milk cheeses is growing and a Raw Milk Producers Association was formed. “Today, the UK produces more different kinds of cheeses than France, thanks in part to the education efforts of Slow Food,” he points out.
The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium also focuses on education through its presence at Cheese. Its involvement since the first Cheese in 1997 is part of its strategy to show that a raw milk cheese can be highly profitable. “Ours is the Italian PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) with the highest value at production (1.4 billion Euro or almost $1.5 billion), a turnover at consumption of 2.4 billion Euro ($2.634 billion), and an export share exceeding 40 percent. Our consumers need to understand that our cheese price is not too expensive, but reflects what our cheese is worth,” explains president Nicola Bertinelli.
Raw milk cheese costs more than pasturized partly because safeguards are needed to ensure absolute hygiene. Acquaranda of Rome has been producing a traditional raw milk cheese called Caciofiore della Campagna Romana since 2004, but it took two years of study to get the process right. “Working with raw milk is a challenge,” recalls Massimo Antonini, head of Acquaranda. “You have to make sure your bacterial count meets strict regulations. Eleven producers started out to do this in 2002 but only two of us are left.” He isn’t complaining because his cheese sells out every year, mostly to Italians but also abroad.
Slow Food’s insistence on raw milk seemingly eliminates one of the most beloved of British cheeses, Stilton, since a PDO Stilton must be made with pasturized milk. But that didn’t stop Neal’s Yard Dairy from developing a raw milk counterpart in 2006 and calling it Stichelton (the name used for Stilton eight centuries ago). Legend has it that the starter culture for Stichelton came from the original producer of a raw milk Stilton not marketed since 1989. Connoisseurs claim this cheese is Stilton as it was meant to be.
Taste in fact is the ultimate driver of raw milk cheeses. The only reason for using this challenging raw material is to impart a richer taste experience to the consumer. According to Laure Dubouloz, chief operating officer of Mons Fromagerie in France, “Flavor and style are more important to our consumer than raw milk per se.”
TESTING THE REACTION TO GORGONZOLA –GOURMET OR GHASTLY?
Prof. Luisa Torri was curious about coriander. It is a type of green parsley known as cilantro in the U.S., and perceived by many as lemony and aromatic. But a minority percentage of the population finds it soapy and repellent, and she is one of those.
She wondered if the coriander conundrum could be a basis for explaining why people develop certain affinities for, or aversions to, other kinds of foods. As Associate Professor of Food Sensory Science and Research Director of the Sensory Laboratory of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, she decided to focus on this dichotomy among cheeses. She began to test students about their perceptions of taste in 2009, looking for descriptors of specific comestibles.
“Three factors determine our tastes in food,” she explains. “The physiological factor, the psychological factor and the genetic factor. The latter, based on our individual DNA, is a powerful determinant.” She has documented genetic variations in people and found that some are especially sensitive to certain smells.
“Blue cheeses are stronger than, say, Mozzarella, which someone may or may not like, but a Mozzarella doesn’t elicit the same strong positive or negative reaction as do the blues,” she notes.
So she developed a research project to determine what factors may predispose a person to like or dislike Gorgonzola. “I could have picked another blue cheese like Stilton or Roquefort, but we are Italian, so I used Gorgonzola.”
She sought volunteers among the attendees at Cheese 2019 for her research. She needed 300 participants for her sensory analysis test and wound up with 359. I was one of them. I signed with trepidation because I do not like Gorgonzola. To me. the cheese smells like bare feet on a hot day. The researchers were delighted to have me because most volunteers were Gorgonzola lovers, skewing the results.
Each volunteer sat in a separate cubicle with a computer monitor, a keyboard, a tray with six numbered samples of Gorgonzola, two glass vials, a beaker, a glass tube, a cotton swab, a glass of water and a cracker. After signing permission forms, we were asked to taste each sample twice in a sequence dictated by the computer. Each tasting was followed by a palate cleansing with water and a bite of cracker.
After each tasting in the first round, we were asked to grade the cheese on a scale of 11 levels of like or dislike. After the second tasting, we had to grade each cheese from strongest to weakest with seven levels (#7 was “hot chili pepper in the mouth”).
I was apprehensive about tasting because of my prior dislike of blue cheese, but the experience wasn’t as bad as I had feared. My personal observations about the six cheeses were:
- Not horrible, kinda creamy
- Salty and rather creamy
- Really soft
- Firm and very blue, salty and acidic
- Quite firm and mottled, seasonal and winey
- Runny with a decided rotten cheese taste
After the second tasting, we put the cotton swab in our mouth for five seconds and were asked to grade the intensity of bitterness on it, using the same scale as before. My mouth was so permeated with cheese that the bitterness barely registered.
Then we opened two glass vials, smelled the contents and described what we smelled based on attributes suggested by the computer (soapy, pungent, bitter, etc). We could choose as many attributes as we perceived. One vial smelled fruity, floral and pleasant to me; the other was fruity but also soapy.
Finally we spit some saliva—without bubbles—into a tube to provide a DNA sample for the researchers. We were asked our gender, age and nationality because this data can correlate with cheese preferences. No names, though, so no invasion of privacy, an important issue in Europe.
Dr. Torri won’t have preliminary results until late 2020. The only thing I know at this point is that Italians tend to like blue cheese; Americans tend not to.
To request results, write her at [email protected].