If you're at a farmers market, a cheese shop or a grocery store with a dedicated cheese department on or around April 22, you might notice an emphasis on the raw milk cheese choices. The day is officially Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day. This yummy, perhaps slightly-stinky-in-the-best-possible-way day is sponsored by the Oldways Cheese Coalition and is being embraced by cheese producers and sellers around the country as a day to educate consumers and get them to try a new cheese or two.
The term raw milk may send up a red flag because of unpasteurized milk's potential dangers, so I spoke with my friend Sue Miller, cheesemaker and one of the owners of Birchrun Hills Farms in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, about raw milk cheese. The majority of the award-winning cheeses she makes are from raw milk, and she says that the dangers associated with unpasteurized milk — such as salmonella, E. coli and Listeria — aren't what they used to be, if the milk is handled correctly.
Raw milk vs. raw milk cheese
"I believe in raw milk when it's produced from animals that are fed properly, kept healthy and clean, and when there is proper handling of the milk after it has been bottled, including the right refrigeration," says Miller.
Even if you're still skeptical of raw milk — which is understandable unless you have confidence in the source — the same concerns don't need to apply to raw milk cheese. Cheese made from raw milk is aged a minimum of 60 days by current law, and that makes a big difference.
"Raw milk cheese is more stable than fluid raw milk because of fermentation. It goes through a natural pasteurization process. Natural bacteria can't survive over time," says Miller.
The beauty of raw milk cheese
The grass from the Birchrun Hills Farm will make this cow's milk taste different than a cow from another farm. (Photo: Birchrun Hills Farm/Facebook)
Raw milk cheese is based milk's purest form, the milk fresh from the cow without pasteurization. Until pasteurization came along, all cheese was made from raw milk. It's the traditional way of cheesemaking and Miller embraces the traditional practices with a little modern science added where it makes sense.
"There are all these great enzymes living in the milk when it's raw that create flavor profiles," says Miller, "When milk is pasteurized, they get extinguished so you have to add cultures to accentuate the flavors of the milk."
When she makes cheese from her own cows' raw milk, she doesn't need to add cultures; the flavor of the milk is naturally translated into the cheese. These flavors are unique to the farm because of where the cows live and what they eat. When Miller uses that unpasteurized milk to create her Birchrun Blue (a personal favorite of mine), the flavor profiles in the milk are one of the things that distinguishes her blue cheese from all other blue cheese. And because the cheese has been aged for at least 60 days, it will have gone through the natural pasteurization process and is safe.
Celebrating Raw Milk Appreciation Day
"I'd love for people to really try raw milk cheese. In Europe people don't want pasteurized cheese. They know how good raw milk cheese is," says Miller.
Raw Milk Appreciation Day is about educating consumers, and Miller hopes that on that day they will "fall in love with producers and fall in love with a cheese made from raw milk." She suggests that consumers experiment. It's not that expensive to do so. Anyone can buy a $6 wedge and make it the main event of a snack or meal, pairing it with other foods and beverages.
"On this day, so many places will be bringing out special cheeses that may not be available all the time," says Miller. She has some suggestions for people walking into the cheese shop or up to the farmers market table who are unsure.
- Ask if the cheese is raw or pasteurized.
- Ask if it's made from cow, goat or sheep milk.
- If you specifically want a raw milk cheese, ask for one, and simply ask the producer or seller to tell you more about the cheese.
- If you're not sure what you want, let the cheesemonger guide you.
Where to celebrate
Birchrun Hills Farm will be at the farmers market in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, on April 22 with samples of the farm's raw cheese, so if you happen to be near there, stop by and ask for a taste of raw milk cheese. There are also events happening all over the country. Oldways Cheese has a list of events in the U.S. by state on its website, and every Whole Foods Store across the country that day will be showcasing local and imported raw milk cheeses.