By Nick Haddow
The subject of raw milk and raw milk cheese has been a hot topic for as long as I have been making cheese. There are some very strong opinions (and often not a lot of facts) on both sides of the debate. It is symbolic of the divide that exists in many areas of our food production, namely the chasm of disconnect that often lies between the producer, the scientists and the consumers.
So why does the issue of raw versus pasteurised milk cheese get people’s backs up so much?
Possibly it is the tradition. But more than that, I think this debate goes to the core of the discontent much of society feels when our food gets manipulated. We feel like our autonomy is being threatened, our ability to live the life we choose, make our own decisions and be guided by our own common sense. We tolerate this in almost every aspect of our lives, but when it happens to our food, we seem to take it more as a personal attack.
Pasteurisation of milk is an excellent thing… when it is needed. For well over a century it has prevented diseases including tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and Q fever and has made milk a globally important source of food.
Pasteurisation is the name given to the heat treatment of milk (and other liquid foods such as juice, eggs and beer) to destroy pathogenic bacteria, which can cause illness. Pasteurisation does not sterilise the milk but it does destroy most of the good bacteria as well as all of the bad. The process temperature can vary and it is always in combination with a minimum time. The typical standard in the dairy industry is to process at 72°C (162°F) for 15 seconds. Pasteurisation (and refrigeration) is the reason milk now has a use-by date; some 2–3 weeks after it has left the farm. In contrast, UHT milk has been heated to a minimum of 138°C (280°F) for 2 seconds. This destroys all the bacteria in the milk, which is why it does not need to be refrigerated and has a ridiculous shelf life. It also denatures the proteins and caramelises the natural sugar in the milk, which is why it tastes so awful. Even when kept at less than 2°C (36°F) raw milk will start to deteriorate – it has a lifespan of 4–8 days because of the naturally occurring bacteria.
Because pasteurisation kills bacteria, it is the first and foremost reason countries in the West have mandatory pasteurisation laws for all commercial dairy products. It is a safety net designed to protect the lowest common denominator. However, these laws are becoming less defensible because unsafe cheese can still be made using pasteurised milk. Raw milk cheese can be made safely. It happens every day, in dozens of countries by thousands of cheesemakers.
"If we start with fresh, clean milk from healthy animals raised in good conditions, and process it into cheese using sound practices that respect some basic principles of microbiology, then safe cheese will always be the result."
Raw milk from healthy animals is, fundamentally, a safe food. It is a complete food source for newborn mammals, rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, hormones and bacteria. In fact, it is close to being a perfect growth medium for these vital bacteria. But it is also the perfect growth medium for pathogenic bacteria.
Cheese is a fermented food. Fermentation is a natural and ancient food preservation technique which can render unsafe foods safe. The primary fermentation in cheese is the conversion of lactose (the sugar in milk) into lactic acid. This job is done by bacteria, which occur naturally in milk.
Cheesemaking is basically the process of acidification (fermentation) of milk and the removal of water. This acidification is crucial in producing a safe cheese. It is important because through fermentation, these good bacteria will decrease the pH of the milk, producing an unfavourable environment for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Also, the proliferation of the good bacteria will produce an environment which is strongly competitive, making it difficult for colonies of the pathogenic bacteria to establish in harmful numbers. This is especially the case for raw milk.
In cheesemaking, post-pasteurisation contamination is a real risk. This is because pasteurisation removes much of the good bacteria as well as all the bad. The good bacteria form a natural defence in the milk, and if this defence mechanism is removed or compromised, then undesirable bacteria can become established and flourish quickly. This is why rapid acidification of pasteurised milk is an essential step in cheesemaking.
In Europe, many cheeses are made with ‘pre-ripened milk’. Pre-ripening is the process of adding a small amount of lactic acid-producing bacteria to the milk stored at a warm temperature (usually 10°C– 20°C/50°F–68°F) for up to 12 hours before it is made into cheese. This is done to proliferate the good bacteria. It also develops better flavours in the milk and cheese. In Europe, for many cheeses it is a legal requirement to do this. The milk for Comté (the biggest selling cheese in France), for example, is legally not allowed to drop below 10°C (50°F). This practice is unfortunately largely illegal in Australia, the UK and the USA. Still, there are those who maintain that pasteurisation is essential to producing safe cheese. There are also those (including some very highly regarded scientists) who see pasteurisation as a threat to food safety.
We were making cheese long before we had food scientists, and we are playing catch-up a bit. For the past 50 years or so we have taken a very conservative, risk-averse approach to food production – one that has shunned centuries of traditional food production and relied wholly on the point of view of science. This has resulted in many of our traditional foods being compromised or lost. Today there is a better understanding of the time-proven methods that have long produced food that is safe and pleasurable, so that science can now inform our food production, alongside tradition, rather than dictate to it.
Fans of raw milk cheese maintain that pasteurisation destroys the natural flora in the milk which deliver so much of the character and flavour of the cheese. This is true but it is not an absolute truth.
Raw milk cheese does have more character than the same cheese made on the same day from the same milk, only pasteurised.
This is a taste test I have done several times, with several different cheeses in several different locations. The results have always been clearly in favour (and flavour) of the raw milk version.
But that does not mean that all raw milk cheese has superior flavour to pasteurised milk cheese. I have tried some bloody revolting raw milk cheese in my time (I’ve even made a few of them). Likewise, I have also tasted plenty of pasteurised milk cheeses that have made me swoon (I’d like to think that I was responsible for a few of those, too).
In the 90s I worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London – a veritable library rich with UK artisan and farmhouse cheeses, staffed by some of the most cheese-obsessed individuals on the planet. On any given day the slate tasting bench groaned under the weight of around 100 different cheeses, sourced from every nook and cranny of Britain and Ireland. All but five were unpasteurised. At lunch, the staff had free access to the full range and it never ceased to amaze me that these cheese freaks who spent their days espousing the flavour benefits of raw milk cheese, routinely selected Colston Basset Stilton, by law made with pasteurised milk, for their own sustenance. The reason was simple: it tasted utterly incredible.
Terroir and integrity.
Terroir is the essence of the place where a cheese is made. It is what gives a cheese its unique, regional character. Terroir is influenced by everything that makes a place unique. It is an expression of a cheesemaker’s integrity and unfortunately, pasteurisation is the enemy of this integrity. As a cheesemaker, I want to be able to use my skills to make the best cheese possible. Being made to use pasteurised milk does not allow me to do this.
The rich flora found in raw milk is determined by several factors: the breed, age and health of the animal, the soil, the climate, the pasture, the supplementary feed such as hay or silage, the quality of the air and water the animal consumes; to list just a few of the big ones.
Combined, these produce a milk which is true and unique to that specific animal and farm. Pasteurisation removes much of that special character.
In Europe, this is taken very seriously. Protected Appellations of Origin (PDO) is a system to ensure that these characters are not compromised or lost. In the Australian wine industry, we now place a high value on the terroir of wines. It is what sets two wines of the same variety, vintage and region apart. Yet in Australia, it is a conundrum to me that we do not value terroir in cheese. In fact, we are legally obliged to stamp it out through pasteurisation. Yet, artisan and farmhouse cheesemakers in countries like Australia rely on this point of differentiation from more commercially produced cheeses which are becoming more and more competitive on quality and price but who are not in a position to make raw milk cheese.
These regulations must be changed; not only to recognise that raw milk cheese can be made safely but also to allow for the development of real cheese with true regional character.
This is an edited extract from MILK. MADE.
By Nick Haddow published by Hardie Grant Books