Raw, or unpasteurized, milk appears to be a radical concept these days, but humans have been drinking it this way since they figured out how to milk cows thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until America’s cities became hot spots for tuberculosis, typhoid fever and other diseases in the early 1900s that pasteurization became standard practice in the dairy industry.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both warn the public against raw milk, though, because milk can contain pathogens like E. coli (found in manure). Indeed, 26.7 percent of milk samples taken from bulk tanks were contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science.
But when most of America’s milk comes from massive dairies with 5,000 cows or so crammed into indoor living quarters, fed only grain and milked multiple times a day while standing in their own feces, this is no surprise. Yes, please, boil that milk!
What about the small dairy farms of 100 or 200 cows? Is their milk deadly?
Last week when I sampled Claravale Farm’s raw milk at the downtown farmers market, I couldn’t help but re-examine that white liquid I had formerly known as “milk.” Like many Americans, I grew up with a glass of store bought, 1 percent, non-organic milk beside my dinner plate. But it wasn’t until last week that I realized what milk really tastes like.
“It’s kind of like how you would never buy canned tomatoes and put them on your salad because they would just be insipid and tasteless. To me, the milk that you buy in Safeway is canned milk,” said Ron Garthwaite, who owns the Claravale Farm in Panoche with his wife, Collette.
It seems the pasteurization process that extends the shelf life and allows milk to be shipped across the country really does cancel out some of that flavor. And yes, the American dairy industry is allowed to bleach milk with hydrogen peroxide and benzol peroxide, as well as water it down.
“We also use Jersey cows,” said Garthwaite. "They are world renowned for the quality of their milk. It’s very concentrated, and it has a lot of protein and flavor.”
The huge dairy farms usually use Holstein cows that have been bred to produce massive amount of milk, but the result is a watery, less flavorful milk. The non-pasteurized milk is also rich in enzymes and good bacterias that are otherwise killed off in the pasteurization process.
The Schoch Family Farmstead is another small, 100-cow dairy farm that sells its raw cheese at the Aptos Market on Saturdays.
“We don’t pasteurize our milk, because it’s not dirty,” said Beau Schoch, who makes the cheese. "Our milk is tested regularly by the state and also by the cooperative creamery that we sell our food milk to. My dad milks the cows himself, so we have a lot of control over our milk.”
In terms of cheese, he said, raw cheese is better, because "non-starter lactic acids, enzymes and bacteria create a lot of complexity in the flavor,” said Schoch. He said the milk is still warm when he pours it into the cheese vat, so it never has time to become infected by pathogens.
Each Saturday, the Schoch brothers give out samples to market goers. They bring Monterey jack, junipero, east of Edam, Monterey County swiss and a few others. The cheeses have a potent flavor that lingers.
“We’re trying to produce something that’s indicative of our environment," says Schoch. "It's like with wine; they say each wine has a flavor profile. You kind of taste the soil, taste the weather, taste the climate. Well, it’s the same thing with our cheese. I think those flavors are concentrated.”