Life on The Wire: International Raw Milk Cheese Day and Appleby's Cheshire
Life On The Wire consists of dispatches from our ever resourceful "curdologist" and cheese wiz, Emilie.
The year is 1086, and William the Conqueror’s great survey of his new country’s assets, so he could tax the hell out of it, was first “published,” Liber de Wintonia aka the Book of Winchester aka The Domesday Book. What’s that to do with this blog post? Cheshire, specifically Appleby’s Cheshire, which we just got a new wheel of, and International Raw Milk Cheese Day which is this Saturday.
The Appleby family is the last bastion of raw milk, calico bound (aka clothbound) farmhouse Cheshire in England, though thousands of tons of farmhouse (not raw milk) and commodity imitations of Cheshire flood the world’s markets.
Supposedly Cheshire is mentioned in the Domesday Book, some say not (the one naysayer can’t provide actual sources, I’ve checked his “sources”) and as I don’t read Medieval Latin, I can’t personally verify the Domesday connection, yet.
But, I want to believe. I want to believe that Cheshire has been around in one form or another since at least the very beginning of the last millennium, some say it was being made in Roman times, but there’s nothing to back that claim up. Getting back to the story...
In 1900 there were more than two thousand farms making Cheshire, by 1939 there were just over four hundred farms making 38% of Cheshire on the market (the rest was make in creameries/co-ops aka commodity Cheshire) and post-WWII there were about forty farms. Now there is one. One farm carrying on the traditions that have been around for a millennium. I don’t know about you but when something that has been around that long faces such peril, I get a bit anxious; like last white rhino on earth anxious.
When the shop receives a fresh wheel, picked for us by the team at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, cutting open a wheel is a thrill every time. The truckle fools you with a pale gray rind and once you score the cloth wrapping, and garrote it in half, hold your breath and gently push the halves apart. When you look at Appleby’s Cheshire the first thing you notice is its color, a beautiful tinted hue that--depending on the wheel-- ranges from salmon pink to a gentle butternut squash color. That’s caused by a natural food coloring called annatto, and despite what some cheese eaters say, doesn’t actually flavor the cheese at the concentrations used.
The flavor of Cheshire; crumbly but not dry, an acidic tingle along the edge of your tongue, fresh cream and a minerallity that would if it were a wine it’d be described as wet rocks. Some wheels have a hint of toastiness and others a green grassiness, others a savory fattiness, depends on when the wheel was made.
What's The Deal With Raw Milk?
I’ve a 1953 publication put out by the USDA called “Cheese Varieties and Descriptions” that gives a two page description of make, history, and characteristics (Comte only got one line ending with “see Gruyere”) that describes how to make it but doesn’t tell us the most two important factors of production. Raw milk and terroir; that terrifying French term that doesn’t have a clear definition and is used almost as much as artisanal but isn’t as easily explained.
Terroir a sense of place channeled through a food or beverage, it’s also in a sense, tradition. The Cheshire plain is a mixture of salt beds and boulder clay deposits, the flavor of which, the minerals of which, gets transferred to the cows and into the milk which gets turned into cheese.
Raw milk, unpasteurized milk, is the milk that comes straight from the animal and for centuries, millennia, its what all cheese was made from. The good, the benign, and the ugly were in the milk; from friendly probiotic bacteria that balanced your gut to illness and death-causing bacteria was in the milk. But, as I just learned Monday, the milk is actually clean, its spiked or “contaminated” by the very process of getting out of the teat, the milk is 100% clean inside the udder and bacteria and other microbes are introduced by the machines, the skin of the udder, and the environment itself. Than Louis Pasteur came up with the concept of pasteurization, first used to control spoilage in wine, and soon changed the world as we know it.
There are generally two camps when it comes to raw milk vs pasteurized cheese: the bacteria fearing white coat brigade headed by the FDA and backed up by people who heard a rumor or have been terrified by a talking head on TV. And then there’s cheese people; the people that too saw those reports or heard those rumors, but went “damn the torpedoes” and walked into their cheese shop and bought some raw milk cheese.
I’m not saying that all pasteurized cheese (or the people that buy it) is bad; for some people it because of health reasons, they have a compromised immune system (like if you’re pregnant/breastfeeding, have cancer, just had surgery etc.) and aren’t taking any chances. Others its because their favorite cheese is pasteurized, others because they want a soft cheese and in the US if its soft its generally under 60 days old which is the legal age any raw milk cheese is required to before it can enter the market.
Ah, the 60 day rule. The bane of every producer, affineur, exporter/importer/distributor, and cheesemonger. Established in 1949 in response to outbreaks of brucellosis, salmonellosis, and staphylococcal poisoning across the US. Any cheese made with raw milk must be aged for a minimum of 60 days at no less that 35°F, domestically made or imported; if you pasteurized milk you can go from milk to cheese to dinner all in the same day.
You can get a food born illness from practically any food; ice cream, lettuce, tomatoes, meats (uncooked, cooked, or deli) and even pasteurized cheeses. That’s right, just because its pasteurized doesn’t mean its safe. In a USDA study done between 1993-2006 there were 122 dairy related cases of illness, of that 38 cases were directly linked to pasteurized cheeses, 27 cases to raw milk cheeses. In case you missed that part, there were more cases of people getting sick from pasteurized cheese than raw milk.
Billions of people around the world eat raw milk cheese every day; we at the shop are in that number. Every cheese we sell has been tasted but somebody (probably me) aka everyone that is working that day. Every large format wheel, usually multiple times, and every batch of cheese that passes through the counter gets tasted.
Why does it matter? Let me put it this way, if we no longer allowed or consumed raw milk cheese there would be no Parmigiano-Reggiano, no Comté, no Gruyere, no Ossau-Iraty, no Manchego, no Isle of Mull Cheddar, no Challerhocker, no Mahon, no Wilde Weide Gouda, and no Cheshire. And that’s just the imported stuff. We currently have 71 cheese in the cheese case; of those 38% are made from raw milk; if we ignored the soft cheeses because of the 60 day rule, 56% are raw milk.
A study done by The Oldways Cheese Coalition in 2015 says of those surveyed 90% believe they should be able to buy raw milk cheese, 50%+ of cheese lovers prefer raw milk cheeses and buy they regularly, 86% say they want to support artisan producers. Like the Appleby’s.
Join us this Saturday from 2 to 7 as we celebrate International Raw Milk Cheese Day, we’ll be tasting out Appleby’s Cheshire and other raw milk cheeses and talking and educating about raw milk cheese and how important it is to keep these cheeses on our tables and in our bellies.
Want to learn more? Check out Old Ways Cheese Coalition’s website or if you’re a book person (or just want a new book to read) pick up a copy of the Percivals’ Reinventing the Wheel.