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Forbidden Fromage

The raw and the cooked--lusting for illegal cheese

By Ella Lawrence

When I was in junior college, my friends and I had dinner parties for fun. The dining room table would inevitably be covered with chips and salsa. Bowls of chips would rest on the arms of the couch; jars of salsa would be passed hand-to-hand. Occasionally, a daring gourmand might bring a jar of bean dip.

After a couple of years, our culinary palates graduated. We were studying art and anthropology, and now we ate rubbery wedges of Brie. Around this time, I started dating a tormented French musician, and while the relationship didn't work out, he did introduce me to my next great love: Camembert.

I'll never forget that first morning at his mother's breakfast table and the smelly wheel of truly French cheese she pulled from the refrigerator. Let's just say I did not show the self-restraint that the French pride themselves on. I ate a half-wheel of Camembert on baguette for breakfast that morning and slogged around Paris with a stomachache all day. Back stateside a month later, I looked forward to impressing my friends at our next dinner party with my elegant upgrade: I would bring Camembert instead of Brie to the next party.

Alas! My selection, proudly unveiled on the dining room table, was just as rubbery and chewy as the unfortunate Brie brick had been, even at room temperature. The massive difference in texture, taste, smell and quality between French and American cheese is due to the fact that all cheese made in America must have pasteurized milk as its base, whereas the best French cheeses are typically made with unpasteurized milk. The Food and Drug Administration regulations state that the milk must be heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 seconds or to 161 degrees for 15 seconds.

The FDA also disallows the sale of soft and semisoft cheeses that have aged less than 60 days before sale, prohibiting Americans from buying the young Epoisses, Camemberts and Bries (most of which are aged around 30 days) that many cheese lovers consider to be pinnacle of semisoft French fromage. In recently enforcing laws that have been on the books for years but generally ignored, the FDA claims that these cheeses may be unsafe because raw-milk products can harbor harmful bacteria such as E. coli and listeria at a young age.

Responding via e-mail, an FDA official explains, "The FDA is a public health agency charged with protecting American consumers by enforcing the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and several related public-health laws. A major component of FDA's mission is to protect the safety and wholesomeness of food. The FD&C Act gives FDA authority over products, and manufacturers of those products, not over consumers."

What this means is that the FDA ban applies only to sellers, not buyers. If truly savvy cheese lovers knew where to look, they might be able to procure the deliciously runny, less-than-60-days-aged French cheeses they covet. While this reporter would never reveal her personal source, websites such as Fromages.com or igourmet.com might be a useful start for the intrepid hunter of raw-milk cheese.

Offerings on Fromages.com this month include delectable rounds of Bleu des Causses, Brie, Chabichou du Poitou, Comte and Tomme de Savoie. Rubbery pasteurized peddlers, eat your hearts out!

This selection, a so-called festival of the various regions of France, doesn't come cheap ($112, including shipping from France), but to be able to savor the true representations of the finest French appellations is worth it to many a fromage fanatic.

Indeed, cheeses have appellations, just like wines. Leo Hansen, sommelier at Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen, elaborates: "In Denmark, when you first learn about appellations, you learn about French cheeses first. For example, in the Loire Valley, you have the goat cheese. In Bordeaux, there's a famous blue cheese, and in the French Alps, there's comte [similar to Swiss Gruyère], all of which pair well with white Burgundies."

To get the maximum flavor from each kind of cheese, Hansen recommends taking a young, a medium-aged and an aged cheese in one sitting and sampling each category with different accompaniments. (Goat cheeses, for instance, pair well with honey.)

Maureen Cunnie, cheese maker at the Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station, says that because of laws in the United States that prohibit sale of raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days, she is obligated to pasteurize. "We pasteurize all our milk; all our cheeses age less than 60 days," she says. Cunnie explains that both the good and the bad bacteria (E. coli and listeria, for example) in the milk are killed through pasteurization, and she then adds in several strains of bacteria to make the cheese.

"No, I'm not telling you what bacteria those are!" she exclaims. "That's a cheese maker's secret. We use four to five strains of lactic acid bacteria. They eat the lactose in the cheese, and turn it into lactic acid. This sours the milk, which is what preserves it and turns it into cheese."

As far as the FDA regulation banning raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days is concerned, Cunnie says, "The most important factor in cheese is the milk. If you don't have good milk, you're not going to have a good product, raw or pasteurized. We pasteurize our milk, and people in the raw-milk movement are always disdainful of this. When they taste the cheese, though, they're surprised!

"It's not so much the raw-milk cheese itself that's the problem," she continues. "More dangerous is people handling the cheese. That's how most people get sick from cheese consumption: post-production contamination." But Cunnie reassures, "I think in general, a cheese maker is hygienic, because they want to cultivate good bacteria in the cheese."

Cunnie, who comes from a culinary background (she was a chef at the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco prior to taking the helm at the creamery), likens cheese-making to alchemy. "Something is different every day," she says. "Changes in the weather, the food the cows are eating, where they're at in their lactation cycle--it's always changing. So you adjust your recipe depending on how the milk is reacting. Even the temperature in the room is a factor in the final product.

"Whether the milk is raw or pasteurized is such a small thing for people to get worked up about."

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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