by Elizabeth Theriault
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining John Pollard at Red Wing Farm in Shrewsbury, along with fifteen others, for a raw cheese making class. The class, taught by cheese maker Connie Youngstrom, was co-sponsored by the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link and Rural Vermont, a nonprofit advocacy group whose mission is economic justice for farmers.
It was a sunny afternoon, a rarity for a November day in Vermont, and combined with Red Wing farm’s picturesque rolling fields and lovely sugar maple groves, proved to be a lovely day.
John has 19 well loved, pasture fed Jersey Cows that Connie uses milk from to make a large variety of cheeses. They make cultured mozzarella with a great, rich flavor; plain ricotta and ricotta with garlic and herbs; yogurt from a Bulgarian strain of acidophilus, a bacteria known for its mildness and health benefits; a range of hard cheeses; and of course, milk. Is your mouth watering yet?
Our day consisted of learning how to make Camembert, mozzarella, and butter all from John’s fresh, organic, full fat, luxurious milk. It truly did seem like an act of alchemy to watch Connie whip around the kitchen with multiple pots steaming on the oven. And then she would dip her flat ladle into a pot and pull up a thick glistening string of mozzarella where just moments before had only been milk.
Connie talked us through, step by step, of what cheese making tools we would need. It’s not much more than a timer, thermometer, two good quality stainless steel pots, a ladle and strainer. She also demonstrated each step of the process and we were able to literally get our hands dirty by stretching and pulling mozzarella into thick long strands and then rolling them into smooth round balls – which of course we then ate. The flavors we so rich and delicious, I honestly had never tasted such flavorful mozzarella in my life!
Connie explained that because of the cultures present in raw milk, the cheese takes on more intense and expansive flavors. It was fun to stand back and watch other people try it for the first time and see the pure pleasure spread across their faces. Who knew mozzarella could be so exciting?
Then it was time for lunch, where Connie had prepared an incredible spread of her cheeses, homemade soup and bread. Over lunch we had a chance to meet others in the class and talk shop a little. Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, shared with us some updates on what was happening legislatively in the state of Vermont around raw dairy issues.
Following our conversation, I felt very lucky to have attended, not only because it was such a beautiful setting, with knowledgeable people and wonderful food, but because up until May 2011 it was actually illegal to teach raw milk cheese classes in the state of Vermont. That is right – only a couple of years ago this magical afternoon would have been under the veil of illegal activity.
Did you know that raw milk is actually quite a contentious topic and some of the arguments, such as that from the FDA, would have you believe that raw dairy is inherently dangerous? Each side of the debate has such differing opinions and their own facts, which can be overwhelming when trying to make sense of it all. However, the middle of the roaders tend to acknowledge raw dairy as a historic staple in our diets, and pasteurization has only very recently come into the picture. The danger primarily comes from industrial milk production, which dramatically increases the potential for contaminants such as fecal matter and others.
More than twenty years ago, the FDA banned the interstate sale of raw dairy products, leaving it up to individual states to regulate. States have taken different stances on how to respond to the demand for raw milk from the public and that demand is in fact growing. In states such as Pennsylvania, you can purchase raw dairy right in shops, while in Vermont, you can only purchase raw milk directly from a farm or raw cheese from a shop if it has been aged 60 days.
A 2009 New York Times article stated, “In Pennsylvania, 122 dairy farms hold raw milk permits, the most of any state. The number has tripled over the last three years, and state officials say another 40 permits are pending.”
The rules and regulations differentiate so much between states it does make you wonder how much validity there is in the “inherent danger” of farm fresh milk. But I will leave that up to you to decide. What I can tell you is Red Wing farm sure knows how to make cheese.
Also check out Rural Vermont http://www.ruralvermont.org/ and Rutland Area Farm and Food Linkhttp://www.rutlandfarmandfood.org/events/ to learn more about our informative workshops.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.