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Strange Food Trends: Raw Milk Cheeses

Cathy Strange’s role as global cheese and specialty foods buyer for Whole Foods Market® puts her in the unique position of travelling the world to not only discover and encourage the world’s great cheesemakers, but also to help advance the artisanal food movement and investigate the world’s emergent food trends. If a new preparation technique is causing ripples in Berlin, or a centuries-old curing tradition is gaining a foothold in Seattle, Cathy knows about it.

Raw Milk, Well Done

You know when you take that first bite – the rich array of well-defined flavors and aromatics, the depth of complexity, the unmistakable sense of uniqueness – you have your hands on a raw-milk cheese. Raw-milk cheeses are made with milk that has not been pasteurized. It’s as simple as that. I think of the piquant tanginess of a raw milk blue, or the grassy, herbal depth of a raw sheep’s milk cheese. I often say that savoring a great raw milk cheese feels like a walk in the woods.

Raw-milk cheeses may be firm, oozy, creamy or crumbly and can come in any shape from wheel to block. Almost always made by small-scale artisanal producers, they often come from single-herd cow, sheep or goat milk. Raw-milk cheeses are not as strange as you may think In fact, I’ll bet you’ve already enjoyed a bite or two of these cheeses. For example, the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, can’t be called Parmigiano Reggiano unless it’s made from raw milk – it’s the law! Many other European cheeses, from those big, beautiful Camemberts to some great triple-crème bries, are required by France’s Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) to use raw milk in their production as well.

A Thousand Years of Yum

For over a thousand years and right up to today, raw milk has been the go-to ingredient for great cheeses, and for good reason – flavor. When milk is cooked, or pasteurized, many naturally occurring flavor-rich enzymes (the good bacteria) are destroyed or denatured by the heat and the cheese loses that important flavor-building foundation.

Additionally it’s terroir, that wonderful “taste of place”, that imparts  the unique characteristics of the land in which the cheese is made. Every geographical location has its own unique family of bacteria, fungi and molds wafting through the air, and when these populate the rinds of cheeses, beautiful, distinctly unique flavors happen. The same basic ingredients and processes used in one location can create noticeably different flavors in another location 100 miles away. Using raw milk accentuates these terroir flavors dramatically.

A New-World Raw-Milk Blue

I’ve been in love with Rogue Creamery’s cheeses for some time now. From Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, they’ve been hand-crafting superb award-winning cheeses for more than 80 years. The milk comes from a single-source herd of cows that graze on the banks of the Rogue River where they eat a variety of native grasses, hop clover, wild flowers and blackberries. This creates a supremely flavorful milk that is rich in butterfat and perfect for cheesemaking.

When I cut into a wheel of Rogue Creamery’s raw-milk Caveman Blue, I get a burst of wonderful aromatics of wild grasses and morel mushrooms. The tangy nuttiness and savory complex flavors of burnt cream, hazelnut and wild berries clearly tell you that you have tasted a world-class raw-milk blue. Try it with a glass of H&G’s Washington State Merlot – you’ll love how the cheese surrounds and enhances this lush red wine’s layered, peppery finish.

Be bold! Don’t let the cheese counter intimidate you. Ask the cheesemonger at your local Whole Foods Market for a taste or two of any of our wonderful raw-milk cheeses. And tell me, what new flavors are you finding?