I met "Pierre" at a rest area near the Canadian border at midnight. I handed him a $100 bill and he handed me a brown paper bag. "Don't you want to count it?" I quipped. He folded the bill, put it in his pocket, backed away from me (never breaking eye contact and never speaking), slid into his Pontiac Bonneville and drove back north to Quebec. I drove south for seven hours, through Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut, to my home in New York City. I drove the speed limit. I didn't want to get stopped. I was transporting illegal cheese.
My search for -- nay, my obsession with -- illegal cheese began in France. "Why is this Camembert so much better than the Camembert in America?" I naively asked the waiter at Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany. "Because, Monsieur, it is made from -- how do you say? -- lait cru?" As I dodged the beads of saliva expelled by his deep guttural pronunciation of "cru," deliberations ensued among the wait staff. They delivered the verdict: "Row milk!"
Images of dilapidated alcoholic cows drinking malt-liquor out of paper bags sprung to mind, but eventually we determined that what he meant was raw milk. Unpasteurized milk. Milk straight from the cow, still harboring all the wonderful bacteria that constitute the soul of great cheese. But it is this very rawness that makes the cheese illegal, and that's what makes me a fugitive.
A Frenchman invented the process that ruined most of the world's cheese, but it took the ingenuity of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to mandate pasteurization of just about everything.
It is legal to use unpasteurized milk in cheese only if that cheese has been aged more than 60 days (most potentially harmful bacteria die in this time). Tragically, this rules out all the young Brie, Camembert and Epoisses (most of which are aged around 30 days) that many consider to be the pinnacle of the cheese-making art. Steven Jenkins, author of "Cheese Primer" (Workman, 1996) and perhaps America's leading authority on cheese, calls the pasteurized Brie and Camembert available in America, "pretenders -- inauthentic impostors bearing their names."
Still, there are fabulous raw-milk cheeses available that have been aged for over 60 days. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it's easy. Artisan raw-milk cheese-makers to whom I spoke said that FDA inspectors pay "extra special attention" to their facilities, and, according to a number of recent articles in the professional cheese press, a forthcoming round of proposed FDA regulations will seek to outlaw raw-milk cheeses altogether.
The ostensible fear is listeria, an obscure food-borne bacteria that the FDA says can, when the planets are in alignment, kill pregnant women, infants, the elderly and the otherwise infirm. But how serious is this threat? Are mothers really feeding raw-milk Camembert to their babies? And why not rely on clear labeling, rigorous inspection and informed consumer choice? It's hard to believe that raw-milk cheeses are as dangerous as, say, cigarettes.
Cheese is not the only potential source of listeria -- it can come from many food products, and, moreover, pasteurization is not a guarantee against listeria because the cheese can contract the bacteria even after treatment. I have consumed about 100 pounds of raw-milk cheese in the past few years; it is my testimony that the listeria threat is overblown. And, as the French are fond of taunting, historically the most severe outbreaks of listeria have occurred in countries like America, where young raw-milk cheeses are illegal.
Of course, the government is not entirely to blame. Accomplice liability for the murder of cheese certainly belongs to corporate laziness and the unimaginative American palate. We get the cheese we deserve, and as long as Cheez Whiz outsells Chevre there is not likely to arise a powerful anti-pasteurization lobby.
We have the winning combination of fear, greed and ignorance to thank for all the raw-milk cheese misinformation out there. These are the lies you will most commonly encounter when trying to ferret out raw-milk cheeses:
Lie No. 1: "It's legal to import small quantities of young raw-milk cheese for personal use."
Unpasteurized cheeses aged less than 60 days are illegal in the United States. Period. FDA regulations state in no uncertain terms that it's illegal to make them, import them or sell them -- and there is no exemption for personal use.
For a few months last year, a French company called Fromages.com flew below the radar and quietly shipped young raw-milk cheeses to eager American gourmets. After Fromages.com was outed by the New York Times and Bon Appetit, however, the ever-vigilant FDA swung into action and forced compliance. Marc Refabert, the company's president, told me, "We think this, as many of our clients do, a violation to the freedom of choice and pleasure, particularly for products that have been around for centuries and are the basis of eating well. But so be it, we have no intention of trying to educate the FDA, or being in violation of their rules."
Fromages.com still ships raw-milk cheeses, but they're at least 60 days old (yet the company has not deleted from its site the press clips saying that Fromages.com will ship younger cheeses). Because of Fromages.com's 24-hour air shipping, however, you can get plenty of cheeses that are 61 days old, and Fromages.com's cheeses were in fact the best of any mail-order samples I received.
It remains to be seen whether Fromages.com will be able to work around a newly emerging problem: Due to a mini trade war with Europe over Europe's importation, or lack thereof, of American beef, the United States has targeted Roquefort cheese for termination -- imposing a 100 percent duty. At the time of my order, however, there had been no price change at Fromages.com.
Lie No. 2: "This cheese is made from raw milk."
Now that raw-milk cheeses are trendy and popular with the idle-rich Cigar Aficionado set, merchants trying to capture this market have started pushing allegedly raw products. But even though the law views them as synonymous, there's a big difference between unpasteurized and raw.
The FDA defines pasteurization along a sliding scale. Milk is pasteurized if it's heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes (which Jenkins calls "good" pasteurization) or to 161 degrees for 15 seconds ("bad" pasteurization, because, according to Jenkins, it fundamentally alters the taste of the milk). Anything else is considered raw by the FDA. So if you heat your cheese to 143 degrees for a hundred years, you can still label it raw. For example, the Grafton Village Cheese Company, an artisanal cheddar cheese producer in Vermont, heats its "raw" milk to 155 degrees for 10 seconds. Then again, Grafton's cheese is excellent (the 3-year-old Grafton Gold cheddar was vastly preferred by my tasting panel to any other American cheddar we tried), which just goes to show you that pasteurization is not the only factor affecting a cheese's quality.
Lie No. 3: "It's impossible to find young, raw-milk cheeses in America."
Well, they may be illegal, but I got some nonetheless.
I got them three ways: Through flagrant smuggling; by "Don't ask, don't tell" mail order; and from stores that had imported small quantities of illegal raw-milk cheese "by mistake."
When smuggling cheese, your greatest enemy is the smell. A Ziploc bag may as well be a screen door for all it does to conceal the athletic-supporter aroma of a really ripe Epoisses. I suggest you take a cue from drug smugglers: Use multiple alternating layers of foil and plastic -- and throw the dogs off the scent by surrounding the whole package with bags of coffee beans.
If you display the proper attitude and bearing, you can get some mail-order operations to send you illegal cheese. Just don't appear too eager (a sure tip-off that you're an FDA agent) and your order may be processed without comment.
Finally, a quick survey of the shelves of six New York-area gourmet stores revealed 17 probable incidents of mistaken importation of illegal cheese. A manager at one of the city's largest cheese merchants told me, "Hey, sometimes it happens, so we sell it. French cheese labels are very confusing, especially to illiterate customs inspectors. We don't make a big deal out of it, though -- you understand?"
Nearly every cheese purveyor I interviewed admitted to trafficking in illegal cheese -- and begged me not to use their names.
Secret report from the underground tasting panel
Charles DeGaulle asked, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" and I understood how he felt as I tried to maintain order among a tasting panel of five opinionated and very homesick French people, an even more outspoken Spaniard and two overmatched Americans.
A journalist's fantasy, when assembling a tasting panel, is to rock the boat. To fly in the face of convention. To have the tasters choose Manischewitz over Mouton. But with my cheese samples, there was no contest. The raw-milk Epoisses and Camembert, which I acquired illegally, beat the pants off the pasteurized poseurs. This superiority was clear from scent alone. Like pigs to truffles, all of the tasters flocked to the unpasteurized cheeses.
"It's alive!" squealed Giselle, who has never read "Frankenstein," upon tasting a semi-soft unpasteurized Saint Nectaire from Fromages.com, "It's not dead like American cheeses." Every one of the five cheeses I got from Fromages.com (which ships overnight to the United States via FedEx) elicited rave reviews, particularly the nutty Tomme de Savoie (Charles, who hails from that region, was so choked up when he tasted it that all he could do was nod) and creamy Abbaye du Mont des Cats (that must be a strange place).
Of course, you may not want to spring for air-shipped cheese from France every day (as a rule of thumb, figure that the shipping cost will equal the cost of the cheese), but luckily there are some excellent U.S. purveyors that offer cheeses of similarly high quality. We had the best luck with the cheese selection we received from Zabar's in New York. One bleu cheese from Zabar's, a piquant sheep's milk Roquefort (from a French producer called Papillon), was judged superior to its milder Fromages.com counterpart. The group was similarly taken with Zabar's Fourme d'Ambert, a cow's milk cheese similar to Roquefort but a bit more subtle. The Fourme d'Ambert also made really good bleu cheese dressing about a week later.
Other first-rate mail-order sources of imported and domestic raw-milk cheeses are Dean & DeLuca, Balducci's, Ideal Cheese and the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Inventories fluctuate rapidly (in part because some of the best cheeses are seasonal, and also because of unpredictable supply lines). Many of the cheeses I tasted for this article were no longer available by the time I put pen to paper just a couple of weeks later, so check each purveyor's Web site for availability at the time of your order.
When asked to articulate the differences between the raw and pasteurized cheeses, most of the tasters followed Giselle's lead and spoke in terms of "dead" and "alive." Monique further explained it in terms of "fuller flavor, but not just fuller -- also different."
"Aha!" cried Victor, after the panel tasted the first of several Spanish cheeses, "The Spanish cheeses, they are superior. They have soul!" Even the French contingent had to admit that the big surprise of the tasting was the near-uniform excellence of the Spanish cheeses. The best was a very young raw-milk Afuegal Pitu (pronounced ah-FWAY-gal pee-TU, which means "sets your gullet on fire") which one purveyor sent us (in error, of course). He explained, "The Feds are on the lookout for French cheese, but the Spanish stuff can still slip through."
My personal favorite of the tasting was Ossau-Iraty, from the French Pyrenees. My other favorite was a Portuguese cheese, Queijo Azeitao. Both are from sheep's milk, and both came from Zabar's.
Close runners-up to Grafton for best American cheddar were Shelburne Farms Farmhouse Cheddar -- call (802) 985-8686 for information -- and Tillamook cheddar, at (800) 542-7290, but no American cheddar was able to best the Keens Cheddar (made by Neals Yard dairy in England) we got from Zabar's. "There's a hell of a lot going on in there," said Joey, the other American panelist (besides me). For sheer English cheese selection (including Stilton, my favorite), the ultimate purveyor is the venerable firm of Paxton & Whitfield, on London's Jermyn Street, which will ship worldwide (Paxton & Whitfield also has an extensive selection of the finest French cheeses). In the United States, there's a very good selection of English cheeses at The British Shoppe in Madison, Conn.
There was little variation in packaging among the above mentioned purveyors. All cheeses were shipped in insulated boxes with frozen gel-packs. My samples shipped in August and September. On days when the temperature was average, the cheeses arrived well refrigerated. On very hot days, the gel-packs arrived melted and the cheeses were warm and soft. They sprung back to life in the refrigerator, however, and seemed to have suffered no ill effects. All samples arrived within a day of the expected date.
Jenkins recommends that you store cheese in the warmest part of your refrigerator (usually the vegetable drawer), wrapped in foil, wax paper or plastic wrap. Serve at room temperature -- the cheeses we tasted were markedly better after they sat out of the refrigerator for about an hour.
And, most important, sweep for wiretaps before ordering illegal cheese.