What is raw milk cheese?
Most supermarket varieties are pasteurised (heated to kill bacteria) which guarantees a safe and consistent-tasting product, but raw milk cheese can be different every time. The season in which it’s harvested and the conditions it is aged in makes it as complex as wine, with good and exceptional years. It’s why more and more smaller cheesemakers are using raw milk.
Sam Wilkin, cheesemonger at Pick & Cheese in London, says, ‘There can be shattering lows but also transcendental highs in quality and complexity. The challenge for pasteurised cheese is to reach heights of complexity; the challenge for raw milk cheese is to reach a level of consistency.’
What makes raw milk cheese so good?
It’s not as if it’s new. Until the introduction of pasteurisation in the mid-1900s, all cheese was made with raw milk.
Charlie Turnbull, from the Academy of Cheese, explains, ‘Raw milk leaves all a farm’s bacterial cultures in place to make the cheese. Bacteria are an essential part of cheesemaking, which is introduced as a starter.
‘Different starters are used for different cheese recipes, and they significantly contribute to flavour and texture. Using raw milk offers a way to personalise a starter. By retaining the bacterial load from their milk, a cheesemaker can bring flavours into their cheese that no-one else can.’
Does raw milk taste better?
Of course, that is subjective. Charlie says, ‘While raw milk is a way of introducing flavour, it isn’t the only way. Some cheeses respond to raw milk, others don’t.’
What about safety concerns?
Charlie explains, ‘The UK has exceptionally high food safety standards, and the threshold for ‘acceptable’ food risk is so low that if raw milk cheese was thought to be unsafe, it would be banned. Additional procedures need to be in place to make cheese with raw milk as safe as pasteurised milk, but the Food Standards Agency accepts these to be sufficient.’
5 raw milk cheeses to try:
Paxton & Whitfield expert Hero Hirsh’s guide to some unpasteurised classics
1) Roquefort PDO*, France
This blue sheep’s milk cheese has a very crumbly, soft texture and an incredibly complex flavour profile. The best strike a balance between sweet, savoury, salty and piquant.
How to enjoy: The classic drink pairing is sauternes. For a food pairing, serve with a sweet fruit paste like membrillo.
2) Comte PDO*, France
A hard cheese with 83 flavour profiles that range from milky-sweet and citrussy to toasted bread and roasted peanuts. For me, it’s perfect at around 20 months when it begins to develop a few crystals.
How to enjoy: A dry oloroso sherry makes a great pairing.
3) Brie de Meaux PDO*, France
The perfect brie should be ripened through with no chalky line. Also, the texture should be supple, not totally liquid. Flavour-wise, expect savoury cabbage and mushroom aromas.
How to enjoy: Can be quite taxing to pair with certain wines or chutney, but a crusty baguette is hard to beat.
4) Pitchfork Cheddar, Somerset
Pitchfork is a really exciting raw milk, cloth-bound cheddar made by the same producers as Gorwydd Caerphilly and recently won the Best British Cheese title at the 2019 World Cheese Awards. It is juicy and acidic, savoury and brothy.
How to enjoy: Perfect with tangy piccalilli.
5) Parmigiano Reggiano PDO*, Italy
The ultimate expression of umami. As it matures, the flavours and aromas develop from citrus and hazlenuts to pineapple, walnuts and pepper. It should be aged for a minimum 12 months, but shows more complexity at 24-30 months.
How to enjoy: With a brut champagne.
*PDO – Protected Designation of Origin, for products that are produced, processed and prepared within a particular geographical area, and with features and characteristics that must be due to that area.
Thanks to Academy of Cheese, The Guild of Fine Food, @cellarmansam and @charlie_bigcheese for help with this article.
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