Last Thursday, five students of Willamette University went up to Portland to attend a seminar on the debate currently shaking the world of French cheese-makers: should raw milk be replaced by pasteurized milk (reputed to be safer but to restrict the variety of cheese tastes) in the making of French cheese?
We left in the afternoon, picking up a van at 4:30 and working our way up Interstate 5 to Portland. Thanks to the wonderful skills of the entire crew, we quickly found a parking lot just one block away from the luxurious Downtown Marriott Hotel, where the seminar was to take place. We entered the lobby, went to the front desk and were directed to “Salons A through C”, where refreshments were freely available as we waited for the other guests to arrive.
After a few minutes, we entered the salon and became a part of “the wonderful cheese community” of Portland: cheese-makers, aficionados, teachers, journalists, etc. The people present were very diverse and came from very different horizons. The event in itself was organized by Oregon State University, who have been revitalizing their local dairy plant for the past few years. As part of this process, and in order to bring an international presence closer to their students, Oregon State asked French cheese maker Sébastien Roustel to become their first “cheese maker in residence”, for the year 2011-2012. For about an hour, Mr Roustel introduced the difficult processes of cheese making to us.
In about an hour, we learnt, among many other things, that:
- about 15% of French cheese is made with raw milk (mainly DPO cheese, which is more expensive because of its particular taste), and as European regulations tend to restrict the use of raw milk, two markets seem to appear: one of “commodity cheese”, with pasteurized cheese, and one of “cheese for specialists or amateurs”, with mostly raw milk;
- “pasteurized” in France is not the same as “pasteurized” in America: when 104°F are enough for a French cheese-maker, you will legally need 160°F if you’re an American cheese-maker…
- - many experiments are conducted around the world to assess the risks of raw milk, but the results are not always the same: sometimes, pasteurized milk can be more dangerous than raw milk. A series of other factors must be taken into account, such as the cleanliness of the farm, the conditions of storage, etc. Also, not all bacteriae are bad in non-pasteurized cheese: some simply add to the variety of tastes!
- in the past ten years, the number of cheese-makers in Oregon has been multiplied by five: it is hoped that the industry of cheese will follow that of wine in the next few years. In 2011, several Oregon cheeses have won the title of “Best Cheese in America”, and some cheese-makers have opened “tasting facilities” for tourists.
After the presentation came the great finale: CHEESE TASTING ! Platters were brought to each table, with pieces of cheese carefully lined up next to little stickers with numbers, and we all acted as testers in a little experiment. We tried four different kinds of cheese (among them, gouda, cheddar and blue cheese), in their pasteurized and non-pasteurized versions, and had to tell which version we preferred. The first show of hands gave a clear advantage to raw cheese, which was confirmed when we all tasted the gouda, in raw and pasteurized versions. But the pasteurized cheddar and blue cheese restaured a balance, and even though there was still a slight advantage for the raw cheese, things were not far from being even. We were left to finish our platters, and were finally given mints (how thoughtful!) before leaving the room. The drive home went well, and we all went back to our lives, stepping out of the surprisingly wide world of Cheese.