What is Raw Milk Cheese?

History of Raw Milk Cheese

Raw milk cheese is simply cheese made with unpasteurized or non-thermized milk. Before the invention of pasteurization in 1822, all cheese was made with raw milk. 

Pasteurization is the process by which bacteria is destroyed by heating beverages and then allowing them to cool.

Thermization is a method of sanitizing raw milk with low heat, and is a method more widely used in Europe.

The invention of pasteurization was extremely important in combating a typhoid fever outbreak during the Industrial Era from unclean raw milk consumption. During this era as cities became hubs of commerce, most industries, including dairy, grew at a rapid rate without regulations resulting in unclean and unsafe food processing conditions.

The large quantities of raw milk transported to concentrated populations in the city increased the risk of contamination severely. This made the traditional model of storing raw milk on a farm and transforming it to cheese irrelevant. Pasteurization was a quick fix to the underlying issue of food sanitation regulation and transportation in the dairy industry.

Twig Farm Square Raw Milk Cheese

Twig Farm Square Cheese, Raw Goat Milk Tomme, Vermont

 

The Origin of Raw Milk Cheese in the United States

Cheesemaking used to be an entirely domestic process before the Industrial Era in the United States. Family farms owned dairy animals, and the cheesemaking process was part of a domestic housewife's weekly duties in order to prolong the shelf-life of the milk produced on the farm.  The Industrial era introduced the first cheesemaking factories to the States, primarily taking most of the cheesemaking off the farm and into the factory, where a new set of controls was required.  Most of the small farm productions of cheesemaking disappeared (with the exception of Vermont), as huge blocks of square cheddar cheese became an import-export product in the slave trade triangle and more.

 

origins raw milk cheese

 

The Origin of Raw Milk Cheese in the Middle East

Since 8000 BC Nomadic tribes in the Middle East used dairy animals for their ability to carry their wares as well as provide raw milk for nutrition.  In the warm Middle Eastern climates, raw milk would naturally sour and become more of a kefir or yogurt consistency. This natural souring process allowed the milk to keep for longer and would be the first step towards creating cheese over a flame.

Gruyere cheese raw milk

Gruyère AOP cheese, raw cow's milk, Switzerland

 

The Origin of Raw Milk Cheese in Europe 

Archaeologists have discovered pottery remnants in Nordic countries with samples of preserved dairy lining the interior from some of the first civilizations.  Domestication of civilization was inherently tied to the domestication of dairy animals and pottery-making. Due to the diverse and somewhat cool climates of Europe, Europeans have led the example of raw milk cheese traditions for thousands of years. Our favorite styles of cheese - from Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, Blue, Washed Rinds, etc - come from raw milk cheeses that are directly affected by their process and their environment.  These cheese styles would not exist without the unique quality of raw milk cheese expressing its unique terroir.

Is Raw Milk Cheese Legal in the States?

Yes and no. In 1949, a law was passed by the FDA that any cheese that hasn't been aged 60 days at 35 degrees F or above is considered illegal to sell. This law was determined based off a scientific study that showed the absence of listeria in cheddar after 60 days of aging, and the hypothesis is that with more aging, the more hostile environment for pathogenic bacteria to develop. 

 

Bayley Hazen Blue raw milk cheese

Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese, Raw Cow's Milk, Vermont

Raw Milk Cheese in a Post-Industrial World

In present day, we are well-equipped to produce, distribute, and sell raw milk cheese in a safe and delicious way. Raw milk cheese facilities are lab-tested weekly to prevent pathogenic outbreak.  Additionally, the natural microbes of raw milk cheese help stabilize and protect against contamination. Raw milk cheese is full of enzymes and healthy bacteria (hello, probiotics) that can be a great part of a well-rounded, immune-boosting diet. 

Despite raw milk cheese's contentious past, we encourage one and all to partake in the distinct flavor profile and textures of raw milk cheeses from all around the world. The culinary and nutritional benefits are not worth missing out on.

Want to learn more about raw milk cheese?
Check out our recent interview with Carlos Yescas, the head of the Oldways Cheese Coalition - a non-profit campaign devoted to educating and preserving traditional, raw milk cheeses.
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