Spring is an exciting time in dairying. Sheep, goats, and cows can now find fresh greens to forage – no more silage. Does this fresh pasture make a difference in cheese? In a word, yes. Consider that spring milk has higher butterfat content (that’s a good thing) and has a variety of microflora that yields a taste of what’s in the pasture when made into dairy products.
As you may have surmised, raw milk cheese flavors vary by season. Said another way, the taste of raw milk cheese reflects where the animals are grazing.
When it was in operation, The Mount St. Angelo Dairy at Sweet Briar College provided milk for Lynchburg and the students. With a smaller dairying operation on the school’s campus, the milk was very reflective of what was in the pasture – good or bad.
“If the cows were into the onion grass, you knew it as soon as you walked into the dining hall,” said Sweet Briar Graduate Jennifer Mitchell. “It affected the yogurt, as well as the milk,” she added, remembering breakfasts with that distinctive flavor.
Smaller farmstead dairies are often where you can find the most distinct tastes in cheese. Consider Switzerland’s notable Chällerhocker cheese. Chällerhocker translates to, “sitting in the cellar” – which is what this washed rind cheese does for 10 months. But, this cheese starts as raw milk sourced from within a mile of the creamery. Accordingly, the tastes from the Brown Swiss/Simmental herds are a distinct reflection of what’s in the fields. In the case of this cheese, the rind is slightly tacky and smells of peanuts. The paste (center of the cheese) is firm and smooth, dense enough to be deemed fudgy, with an aroma of brown butter and cashews, and lingering flavors of malt and caramel.
To me, it’s important to note that raw milk cheese-making preserves a sense of place and retains beneficial enzymes. The impact of pasture is so great that many traditional kinds of cheese like Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano or France’s Comte have strict laws that define both where and what the cows can graze on, together with the breed of cow.
Imagine trying to bake a cake with cooked eggs. According to Cary Bryant, Cheesemaker Rogue Creamery, that’s the challenge when using pasteurized milk for cheese making.
Any discussion about pasteurization can quickly divide people. It’s not a one-sided issue and with sub-topics that include personal freedoms, government regulations, food safety, and microbiology, the discussion is sure to continue for a long time.
Thankfully, in aged (legal) raw milk cheese, we can let our taste buds decide what’s best.