The Commonwealth Club of San Francisco hosted the discussion last night in the historic Ferry Building. People started lining up to get in right at 5:45pm, and as far as I can tell, the majority of the audience were Commonwealth Club members who often attend a variety of talks and lectures. There were, assuredly, a few cheese professionals in the crowd, as well as enthusiasts such as myself, but overall I’d say that the 300 or so people there were C.C. members. Kathy and I were warmly welcomed (as non-members) by the people we sat near, and we quickly discovered that the people across the table from us live in our old SF neighborhood, and a good friend of theirs lives in the same building as us in the East Bay. A co-worker of mine (from my day job in IT work) was in attendance with her husband. Also, ran into an acquaintance that we know from working with the Exit and Marsh Theatres. She’s a C.C. member. San Francisco is a small town.
The panel of cheese experts were well chosen, and able to offer a variety of perspectives on the subject from production, to importing, to the science of the subject. In brief, here’s the panel:
• Colin Shaff, Maitre-Fromager, Bar Bambino, SF [Moderator]
• Gordon Edgar, Cheese Monger, Rainbow Grocery, SF
• Soyoung Scanlan, Owner/Cheese Maker, Andante Dairy, Petaluma
• Moshe Rosenberg, Professor and Specialist, Dairy Eng. & Tech., UC Davis
• Andy Lax, Importer/Distributor, Fresca Italia, San Francisco
Both pro and con viewpoints about raw milk cheese (and the regulations concerning them; see my own brief synopsis of the issue here) were discussed, but overall, I’d say that the panel shared an overall consensus…
The discussion began with the moderator, Colin Shaff, asking Professor Moshe Rosenberg to give an overview of the issue(s). Although he did so (in a both a collegiate and entertaining manner), he did leave out some very basic concepts. Much later during the discussion, for example, I heard some “ah-ha!” realizations uttered by audience members when they realized that it IS legal to make cheese from Raw Milk in the U.S., but that it must be aged (under the right conditions) for over 60 days. Many (most?) of us may have been clear on the various issues in advance, but since much of the audience may not have been well versed on the subject, it may have helped to lay out the basics and current laws on a printed hand-out… Professor Rosenberg did an excellent job framing the discussion in a much broader sense: Humans, beyond roughly the age of three, aren’t intended to drink milk and/or eat foods made of milk. Of all the animal kingdom, humans are the only species which consume milk of other animals. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but it is good to be reminded that the very fact that we eat cheese at all is an oddity we can chalk up to years of discovery and tradition. Rosenberg’s explanation of why we eat cheese was a simple one; we love to indulge ourselves with something that tastes wonderful.
Soyoung Scanlan, as a cheese maker (of pasteurized goat and cow’s milk) was asked about whether the regulations concerning raw milk limited her and her dairy at all. Her answer to this came out in several parts over the discussion, but she initially stated that there were certain European-style cheeses that she’d like to be able to produce, but is unable to do so using pasteurized milk. As to the question of safety, she talked about how she knew her goat herd, her milking and cheese production facilities, and that they are thus as safe as possible. [This "ideal" (of knowing your animals and the conditions that the cheese is produced) was discounted in a variety of ways by the panel since even pasteurized milk cheese can be dangerous... Soyoung herself stated in opening that you can become sick from any food.]
Gordon Edgar, who interacts with actual cheese consumers regularly, pointed out there there is much confusion concerning raw milk. In one excellent anecdote, he said that he’ll have people ask him for; “raw milk cheese,” with no other description, merely because they have heard that it is the best, or the most true, type of cheese. He also pointed out that he’ll have other customers who will only buy pasteurized milk cheeses due to the belief that these are the only cheeses which are truly safe for consumption.
I’d say that the entire panel agreed that producing, or buying, cheese due to it being made (or not made) of raw milk is not the point. Each, in their own way, stated this. Andy Lax, for example, remarked that for his customers the most important thing is the quality of the cheese. Lax was also able to bring to light how odd, and often uninformed, the regulations and regulators of cheese importing laws are. To prepare for the panel discussion, he tried to find out what the consequences would be if he illegally imported raw milk cheeses (which were aged less than 60 days). The first official he spoke to didn’t seem to know that there was a difference between raw and pasteurized milk cheeses. As he pursued the question further, it seems that emphasis seemed to fall on whether the cheeses in question were soft, or hard cheese; soft being somehow thought as less safe in the minds of the officials he was speaking with.
Again, this leads to having a knowledge and understanding about cheese. If a consumer believes that raw milk cheese is inherently “bad” or “good”, “safe” or “unsafe”, the issue will continue to be mired in confusion and the regulations surrounding it will be equally as confusing.
Moshe Rosenberg stated that safety is something which needs to be quantified. For him, who has often been a judge in state, national, and international cheese competitions, it is always a matter of the end product; the taste, and NOT whether the milk was raw or not. Soyoung Scanlan has been approached by customers (restaurateurs) to produce raw-milk cheeses for them, partially due to the positive stigma it holds for many cheese foodies. She did this for her customers, creating both a pasteurized and raw version of the cheese for tasting. Both were aged over 60 days, as required by law. In an almost apologetic way, the restaurateurs admitted that they preferred the pasteurized version. She too, agreed, so their choice didn’t surprise her but that they were somehow disappointed that the raw milk version wasn’t the clear-cut winner she found odd. Ultimately the pasteurized version won because the taste was superior for that cheese. This may not always be true of different styles of cheeses… Gordan Edgar challenged anyone to point him to a Parmigiano-Reggiano made with pasteurized milk, for example. It just isn’t done. This classic cheese is, and always has been made from raw milk. Towards the close of the discussion Andy Lax further accented this point by stating that laws towards the production of cheese need to also protect cheese traditions, and not just be “blanket” laws requiring the same treatment for all cheese.
The entire group’s comments complimented what one another was saying, but through their own areas of expertise.
Here are a few comments (paraphrased) which I particularly enjoyed from each concerning using raw milk or not:
S.S.: It is my job, as a cheese maker, to make the best possible cheese with the materials I have available to me.
G.E.: (ideal is) the best tasting cheese that doesn’t kill anyone.
A.L.: Industrialization (of cheese making) starts to cause the problems.
M.R.: Like wine, the location effects the taste (soil, grapes, moisture), and it does with cheese too (the livestock, what they eat, where/how they live). Instead of using raw milk with the intention of trying to replicate specific European cheeses, unique American cheeses should be created based on the the location/ingredients present, raw milk or not. [again, I must state here that I am paraphrasing the panel members]
Without trying to selectively summarize, here are a few major points that I felt were more or less agreed upon by the panel members:
Using, or wanting to use, raw milk just for the sake that it is raw milk is not the best approach. Cheese makers should do the best that they can for the sake of the taste.
Any legislation/regulations should be formed by well-informed, or better yet, experts about the relative risks (to both consumers and to the process and taste of the cheese).
It is the cheese maker’s responsibility to be as proactive as possible concerning the health and safety of their entire process of making (and distributing) their cheeses. Starting from the quality and source of their milk, until the finished product leaves their ability to control/influence its proper care.
The consumer must make the best and most informed decisions as possible. To buy responsibly it to not only get the best possible cheeses, but to also be getting the safest.
Kathy and I spoke with Gordon Edgar briefly after the panel. He said that they all could have gone on for hours, and I, for one, would have gladly continued to listen to their opinions and expertise. We did, however, go home and enjoy a piece of the cake Kathy made, a “Swiss Strawberry Fruit-Roll”. The whipped cream? Made from pasteurized heavy whipping cream.
There’s much more I could have said about the panel. Have questions about it? Let me know! Use the comment section.