The raw and the cooked: Trouble in Dairyland

A tall glass of milk. It’s a fearful quantity I haven’t drunk in years. This I gulped down completely, nervously, my own guinea pig. It was cool, rich and delicious. Though … to be honest … no more so than a high-quality milk like Strauss Family Farms in the Bay Area, or Blue Marble here in Madison. And, dear friends, for those of you curious about the digestibility of the raw versus the cooked: it still produced what I will call some Inner Turmoil.

Of course, the fight over raw milk isn’t about my belly or my palate. It’s about personal choice thwarted by an agency that way overstates the risk of a nutritious food. Or it’s about not allowing people who are misinformed to feed a risky substance to kids, who can’t choose for themselves. Depending on whom you ask.

I’ve been asking lots of people about it, as I report a series on raw milk for WORT-FM, Madison’s volunteer-run radio station. (Back on the radio! You can hear the first story with this download: I’m around 23:00.)

The head of Food Safety, Steve Ingham, told me he’d had raw milk once. He was 20, and it was an awkward family situation, and he was nervous about it but figured he’d make it. I also met a research cheesemaker at UW-Madison who grew up drinking raw milk and now is leery of it, saying he knows too much now.

Not all the germ-savvy fear raw milk. I just learned of a farmer-microbiologist who does his own bacteria testing.

Risk, worry, step aside for tasting notes. The milk was merely as excellent as any other. But the cream! The cream was yellow and so thick it required a spoon to pull it out. The butter, made by the farmer’s friend, a golden mass, sweet and strong, making the store butter I live on seem like plain pale wax in comparison. At the French Laundry, I remember, there was a butter in-between course, a sort of palate cleanser. Two tiny dishes we passed around the table; one salted, one not; two very different flavors. It was an awakening, a reminder to pay attention to the simple base of your food. The raw butter was like that. But what how would that same cream, from the grass-eating, name-bearing, loved cows, have tasted had it been pasteurized first? Would it be any less delicious?

In Africa I grew to appreciate the taste of boiled milk. (Though, in context, I also came to enjoy whole-milk powder, Nescafe and La Vache Qui Rit.) So I do not trust my own judgment.

Bill Anderson ought to know; he’s an assistant cheesemaker at Bleu Mont (of Private Reserve fame. Dear lord, that’s good!) He says tasting pasteurized-milk versus raw-milk cheese is like listening to trumpet versus whole symphony.

I’ve dulled my senses with mulled wine for the moment — after all, it’s a snow day — so further taste trials will have to wait.

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