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Interview: Celebrating Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day with Carlos Yescas

Once a year, the world comes together to celebrate Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day. 

Raw milk cheese is made with milk that has not been heat-treated, so the milk holds onto its natural microbes that impart a unique terroir to the cheese. 

Raw milk cheese has been produced for thousands of years before the advent of refrigeration, showing raw milk's capacity to sustain diverse communities. The difference in flavor between raw milk cheese and pasteurized (heat-treated) cheese can be quite stunning, sometimes life-changing. 

Carlos Yescas teaching raw milk cheese

I had the honor to interview Carlos Yescas, the head of the Oldways Cheese Coalition - a non-profit campaign devoted to educating and preserving traditional, raw milk cheeses.

Oldways Cheese Coalition started in 1999. Historically, there was a pivotal moment at Oldways that inspired the team to create a program entirely devoted to tradition and raw milk cheese.  

Cathy Strange of Whole Foods and Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways first met in the late ’90s, as they joined forces to assemble an international coalition to preserve the right of individuals to choose raw milk cheeses. Together with the American Cheese Society and the Cheese Importers Association of America,  they combated the proposed Food and Drug Administration ban on raw milk cheeses.

Despite the effectiveness of their collective work, there continues to be regulatory threats. Nevertheless the Coalition continues to be vigilant to keep the right “to choose our cheese.” Today the Coalition is called the Oldways Cheese Coalition and the focus remains on preserving and promoting raw milk cheese, including the annual International Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day, on April 20, 2019.

Last year, Oldways updated its mission and along with it, the Oldways Cheese Coalition revamped its vision. The new mission reads: “The Oldways Cheese Coalition inspires people to embrace the joys of the old ways of eating traditional cheeses in healthy amounts.”

Their mission is to make sure people understand that dairy has always been a part of traditional diets including the Med Diet. Oldways are happy to celebrate and focus on traditional cheeses as part of their overall mission to help people live healthier and happier lives through cultural food traditions. 

how to judge cheese

Why did you decide to become the head of the Oldways Cheese Coalition program? What past professional experiences informed this choice?

Ever since I started my career in cheese in Ireland as a cheesemonger, I've been committed to supporting traditional cheesemakers. It was part of the ethos at Sheridan’s Cheesemonger and something I got from Seamus Sheridan and Sarah Bates, now a cheesemaker at Durrus.

As I started working with Mexican cheesemakers, I realized not only how important raw milk is to achieving a good flavor in cheese, but also to connecting each cheese to a place. Back then, we only talked about terroir in esoteric ways, not like now that we understand that terroir actually has microbial, geographic, climate, and socio-cultural connotations. But as you know, I have not always worked in cheese. I previously worked for the United Nations, while doing a PhD in Politics. However, my professional career was always in support of rural economies.

Eventually, my time came to start looking for a new job and found the Oldways Cheese Coalition. I was excited to see a place where I could use my academic and policy advocacy training as well as my love and experience in the cheese industry. The job ad was interesting, because it was looking for someone with my background in non-profit operations and management, but at the end it read “experience in cheese not necessary.” It was kind of the perfect job for me, since I had that extra knowledge after having written a book on Mexican cheese and being a cheese judge for over 5 years at the time.

I took on a really big challenge because the OCC had only been re-started a year earlier after a couple of years of inactivity. The OCC needed to be built from the ground up again, but also using some of the resources already in place. I hope my work is paying off in more educated customers and better sales for cheesemakers.

 raw milk cheeses from mexico

How do you define the traditional cheese category you highlight in the program? Is it similar to Slow Food heritage food's parameters?

I would like to think that our promotion for traditional cheeses goes a bit beyond Slow Food’s heritage parameters. Mostly because we recognize that some of the artisanal practices aren't constricted to European products. We know that these practices are transferable and cheesemakers around the world are using them to produce better cheeses everywhere. This does not mean that we don’t support Denominations of Origin; we like to protect those regimes, while also advocating for cheesemakers in the new world to adopt the best of the two worlds and forge a new cheese culture for themselves.

Some of our biggest support is actually in the new world. We have a very engaged group of people in Australia and Brazil. We highlight their cheeses alongside the remarkable good cheeses made now in the US and the heritage cheeses from Europe.

Do you think by preserving traditional raw milk cheese we will be one step closer to a future of independent food systems, where we are no longer reliant on monocrop agriculture?

Yes! I think raw milk cheese production touches on many issues and particularly on independent food systems. Not only are we talking about a diversity of microbes and soils, but also hopefully about different dairy animal breeds and grasses. While at the same time talking about new distribution methods and independent retailers.

 the differences between bloomy rind cheeses

How are you currently educating people year-round about raw milk & traditional cheeses? With a 6.6% growth rate in specialty cheese in the US, it seems like an exciting time to be teaching people about these cheeses.

The first part of the year we are focusing on our global celebration. This year we will be celebrating the 5th annual International Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day in over 700 outlets in 25 countries. This celebration is a great opportunity for cheesemakers and retailers to showcase some delicious raw milk cheeses to cheese-lovers.

The rest of the year we have a variety of programming and educational campaigns. We partner with cheese stores to teach classes or share knowledge online with our engaged social media community. We go to events and speak to people about traditional raw milk cheeses.

The growth in specialty cheese is really impressive, but we are still concentrating on making sure people understand the differences between traditional cheeses and specialty cheeses that can sometimes be gimmicky and not necessarily any better than commodity cheeses. We definitely want consumers that are educated and are making decisions on values they support and not on trends they see in the media.

 raw milk cheese taasting

How much has raw milk cheese appreciation day grown since its campaign launched?

It is a completely different event now. It started very locally, with a couple of producers in the US and some retailers. It was very much a US-centric event but now we celebrate globally. As I mentioned, we are expecting events in 15 countries around the world and now our campaign runs in four languages.

We focused on keeping the message consistent and building trust in the information we are providing. I am very happy with the results so far and I hope consumers this year will be able to understand better what we are talking about with our 2019 theme.

The theme this year is the state of raw milk cheese. We want everyone to take pictures of the raw milk cheeses available to them. We hope these pictures will give us a snapshot of the current state of the industry and give everyone a sense of how large a selection we still have. 

Can you list 5 raw milk cheeses that our customers should be looking for in 2019 that you're especially excited about? 

I think it is about time that we talk about the big elephant in the room and that is all the imitation cheese out there. I’m principally talking about Parmesan-style cheese made outside of Italy. Not only do these cheeses not taste anything like the original, they also don’t support the same values as the original nor are they made with raw milk. Cheese made outside of the designated areas for Parmigiano-Reggiano is all produced with thermalized or pasteurized milk. I hope consumers are aware of that and understand how their dollars impact what comes to market.

Other cheeses to try are the original Alpine-style cheeses and American versions, both made with raw milk. For the original European cheeses try Gruyére AOP, Comte AOP, Emmentaler AOP, L’Etivaz AOP, and Sbrinz AOP.

How would you know that they are the originals made with raw milk? They include AOP behind their name - that is the European designation that protects these cheeses. Don’t buy cheese made in the US made with pasteurized milk using a name that is already protected somewhere else. From the other side of the Atlantic, I would encourage customers to seek out Tarentaise from Spring Brook Farm as a great example of a raw milk cheese in the Alpine-style.

Finally, I would encourage people to either try a raw milk cheddar made in the US or England and taste the difference.

Why should a cheese lover support the Oldways Cheese Coalition?

We have some cool swag for cheese-lovers to support us or they can make a donation. We currently sell socks - all the proceeds go into promoting raw milk and traditional cheeses. 

Buy Oldways Cheese Coalition Socks

More information on Oldways Cheese Coalition

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