Meadow Creek Dairy is different from most American cheesemakers because it uses unpasteurized, or “raw,” milk to make its cheese. Its brown-and-white cows graze on a grassy hillside high in the Appalachians.
In the US dairy market, which is dominated by industrial cheesemakers who only use pasteurised milk, the small family business in the east is unusual.
Helen Feete and Ana Arguello wear blue overalls and caps to work. They stand in front of huge vats of milk that each hold hundreds of gallons.
Feete and her husband started the dairy in the 1990s. She told AFP that when they began, “there were no models for us to follow” because not many small dairy farms were trying to make cheese from raw milk.
On the other side of the Atlantic, methods that are considered traditional in Europe and even a source of regional pride are almost taboo.
The main difference is that pasteurised milk needs to be heated, either to 63 C for 30 minutes or 72 C for 15 seconds.
That kills the microflora in the milk, which has a big effect on how it tastes—and not in a good way, say people who like raw milk.
Liz Thorpe, an American who writes books about cheese, said that unpasteurized milk gives cheese its “complexity and uniqueness of flavour.”
On the other hand, people who don’t like unpasteurized cheeses say that raw milk is more likely to have bacteria and microbes that can cause diseases like salmonella and listeriosis, which can be fatal.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that “all milk and milk products in their final package form that are meant for direct human consumption must be pasteurised.”
But since the 1940s, the agency has allowed the sale of raw-milk cheeses as long as they have been aged for at least 60 days at temperatures above 2 C.
Kat Feete, who has worked at Meadow Creek with her parents and brother for most of her life, said, “That’s not so much a problem as it is something we have to build our cheeses around.”
The FDA’s 60-day rule is meant to give all dangerous pathogens in raw milk enough time to die off. However, it prevents the sale of soft cheeses made from raw milk that are ready to eat before 60 days are up.
Kat Feete said, “It can be frustrating that we can’t make certain kinds of cheese.”
“Many people would love to have a raw-milk brie or something small like that.”
Most of the cheeses at Meadow Creek are semihard. Seasonal cheeses are made based on what the cows eat at different times of the year. They age in the cellars of the dairy, where the temperature and humidity are controlled.
Grayson, which is one of the most popular cheeses, is a semihard cheese that is similar to Reblochon from the Alps or Maroilles from the north of France.
Meadow Creek Dairy and other US companies that make raw-milk cheese face another problem: many Americans are still afraid to buy something they think might be dangerous.
“So many people in the US think it’s illegal to eat cheese made from raw milk, but that’s not true,” said Thorpe.
“There are a lot of false ideas,” Thorpe said.
She said that she works hard to let people know that these cheeses are “perfectly healthy, safe, and good.” She also said that it’s important for a consumer to know where a cheese comes from.
In the beginning of Meadow Creek, “it was a little harder to teach the market about what we were doing because they thought it wasn’t very safe,” Kat Feete said.
But, she said, things are starting to change.
“I think people are starting to realise that making cheese with raw milk is safe and a good way for a small cheesemaker on a farm to make cheese,” Feete said.