It is surmised that cheese was born as a means to preserve milk, perhaps as far back as 8,000 years ago. The first archaeological evidence of cheese making was found in Egyptian tomb murals dating to 2000 B.C. The Romans developed it into a fine art, with wealthy homes even having special rooms dedicated to the production of cheese.
Flash forward a few millennia, and we find cheese to be a wildly popular foodstuff across the entire planet, so of course there are methods of bulk processing to satisfy that need. But lately there has been a burgeoning movement to return to the local roots of this sublime form of milk, an artisanal approach that often involves raw-milk cheeses.
Concerns over the safety of raw milk products have led to regulations and restrictions concerning the use of unpasteurized milk. Here in the United States, raw-milk cheese must be aged for at least 60 days after being made, while in Europe more attention is paid to the practices involved in the husbandry and processes leading up to the transformation of milk to cheese. Artisanal makers have largely adopted a blend of both approaches to provide local cheeses that are sublimely delicious and assuredly safe.
Many people believe, and taste tests have often borne out, that raw-milk cheeses, especially those that are made in small batches from specific farms or even types of animals, are superior in flavor to mass-produced, pasteurized- milk cheeses. One theory is that the pasteurization process simply destroys flavor-rich enzymes. Another widely held opinion has to do with terroir, a term usually used in reference to wine that refers to the "taste of place" that influences the flavors of products created in a specific geographic area. But where in viniculture it refers largely to the soil where the grapes are grown, in cheese, making it references the bacteria, fungi, and molds that are blown through the air in each region.
Of course, it all starts with the milk. And it can certainly be argued that the milk from a local, free-grazing cow that ingests a wide variety of plant matter and grasses is likely to produce a more complex and nutritious base for cheese than milk taken from a confined, grain-fed cow on a factory farm.
Something for Everyone
What is inarguably true is that there is a dizzying array of raw-milk cheeses to be found in the marketplace today, ranging from soft ripened Brie to semi-soft blue and jack cheeses to harder delights such as cheddar, Gruyère, and Parmesan. In fact, the ultimate Parmesan, Reggiano, is required by Italian law to be made with raw milk.
So get up close and personal with the cheesemonger at your local health food store, have a conversation about the origins and characteristics of the cheeses he has lovingly selected, and start your exploration of this delectable centuries-old art.
Neil Zevnik is a private chef in Los Angeles who is devoted to the idea that "healthy" doesn't have to mean "ho-hum." Visit him online at neilzevnik.com to learn more.
photos (this page and next): Pornchai mittongtare; prop Styling: robin turk; food Styling: LIESL MAGGIORE