A great cheese should have depth, uniqueness, and a sense of humor. Raw milk cheeses are epitomic of these attributes, as they not only outshine pasteurized cheeses in flavor, but are more as nature intended. Just like a fine wine, raw milk captures the essence of the geographical region from which the animals ate their grass and feed, producing a specific and authentic flavor specific to that region, known as terroir.
Unfortunately, the FDA prohibits the sale of raw milk cheeses aged 60 days or less in the United States, from fear that raw milk cheeses contain bacteria which can cause salmonella. This only adds to raw milk’s notoriety. Now, raw milk cheese has become the cheese you wouldn’t want to bring home to your parents. It’s dangerously sexy. You can find them if you know the right people, but I’m not mentioning names here.
The FDA’s regulation becomes problematic when dealing with fresh, young cheeses which rely heavily on the quality of milk used. Pasteurization leaves cheese with a cooked, less potent flavor. Plainly put, pasteurized cheeses can be boring. It’s like buying the Greatest Hits album of your favorite band instead of the original albums you loved.
Still, there are exciting cheeses that do meet the age requirement. The Queso Clara, a raw goat’s milk, is the “little black dress” of cheese; no closet or cheese plate should be without it. While Spain excels in sheep’s milk cheeses, such as the Manchego, their goat’s milk cheeses, while less mainstream, are equally reputable. The Clara’s texture is dry and a bit flaky. Its rind is rustic and gray and the flavor is exciting. Your taste buds are greeted with an herbal, complex tang typical of a gammy goat. Then, a fruity and sweet essence melts upon the tongue, transforming suddenly and forcefully into an electric bang, where the raw power transforms from subtle to blatant, and the soil from which the goats ate their fresh grass is pronounced. The finish is earthy, with caramel notes, and it bids your mouth goodbye like a gallant lover, leaving you satiated yet wanting more. When eating the Queso Clara, I like to picture the little goats lazily munching on green grass, possibly retiring for a siesta after their large lunch. It’s up to every cheese eater to conjure their own fantasies; some like to picture the milking process, but those are generally men looking for a mother figure. Try serving with a warmed baguette and crisp green grapes, or drizzled with a bit of raw honey for a truly decadent experience.
The Ossau-Iraty is a raw sheep’s milk cheese that is not only distinct and challenging, but seems to be touched with the supernatural. This cheese was my first love. Originated in the West Pyrenees, Ossau-Iraty, whose name “Ossau” comes from a river and valley in Bearn, France, is made exclusively from the milk of ewes of the local breed known as the Basco-Bearnaise or Manech. This breed is characterized by their black or red heads. In this case, blondes don’t always have more fun. After the cheese is removed from their special caves they are hand rubbed with salt, and then later rubbed with brine-soaked cloth for a period of four months. The final result is a nutty yet fruity cheese, subtle without lacking tenacity; a cheese I would describe as voluptuous. Superb paired with olives, prosciutto, or fruit; not to mention a sophisticated grilled cheese on French baguette. As for wine, a Sauvignon Blanc or a simple Chardonnay would make a first-rate combination.
Anne Greenwald works the cheese counter at Whole Foods Market, Columbus Circle, in New York City. She invites you to stop in and try some raw milk cheeses with her, including some of her other favorites: the Point Reyes Blue, from California, the Rolf Beeler Gruyere, from Switzerland, and the Gabietou, from France.