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Cow to Table?

Its politics may be messy, but in the kitchen, raw milk proves deliciously productive

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I had no idea two gallons of raw milk could be so yielding. But this week, armed with just a laptop, two jugs of unpasteurized milk and a few simple kitchen tools, I performed dairy alchemy that yielded eight ounces of butter, a small bowl of yogurt and two baseball-sized hunks of my favorite cheeses.

I had heard about the merits of raw milk, which teems with nutrients and good bacteria — its admirers call it “white blood.” Still, a few days earlier I had fretted as I watched a local dairy farmer decant fresh, organic milk from a gleaming silver tank into a jug. Could this possibly harm me? I wondered. The persistent voices of epidemiologists played in my head: You could get E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria. Without pasteurization, you’re playing with fire.

As I waited for my milk, two healthy-looking customers stopped by to pick up their weekly ration, and I dialed down my worries a degree. The young farmer was selling it to us for $8 a gallon, a significant jump from the $2.50 or so he pockets for each gallon sold to the national Organic Valley cooperative to which his farm belongs.

Technically, he’s not supposed to sell raw milk except via “neighborly exchange,” because Organic Valley’s board voted last spring, by a razor-thin margin, to prohibit its member farmers from selling unpasteurized milk as a side business. The decision was based on the cooperative wanting all the organic milk produced by its members; if they sold raw milk locally, there would be less available for the national supply system, according to the organization’s website. Organic Valley is not against raw milk per se. But the policy that went into effect on January 1 put this farmer’s family in a bind: Its long-term business plan relied on selling to the cooperative and to local customers.

“I understand why some farmers on a dead-end road somewhere might not want me selling it,” the farmer told me. “They have nothing to gain from it.” What they could lose, he implies, is interest in their “conventional” milk. But the price he could get for a gallon of raw milk sold to the public was too lucrative to pass up — and his customers want raw milk to boot.

The farmer would be breaking another rule if he sold me raw milk knowing I was going to make butter with it — so I didn’t tell him my plans. Back in 2009, when Vermont passed Act 62 — aka the raw-milk bill — it was lauded as a small victory for dairy farmers, who were struggling with the paltry prices their milk fetched on the commercial market. The law regulated the sale of unpasteurized milk, allowing farmers to sell it from their premises. But the bill also explicitly ruled out selling raw milk for anything but fluid consumption.

The Vermont Department of Health remains wary of encouraging people, especially children, pregnant women and the elderly, to drink raw milk or consume raw-milk cheeses aged for less than the FDA standard of 60 days. “It’s perfectly acceptable to make cheese from raw milk if it’s aged appropriately,” says Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist, but she suggests there can be “serious implications” for vulnerable populations who choose to consume the milk in other forms.

The law didn’t stop Rural Vermont, an agricultural advocacy group, from holding raw-dairy-processing classes, showing people how to transform the rich, fatty stuff into butter, cheese and yogurt. The Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets shut those classes down in February of this year, claiming the organization was violating the law. Since then, Rural Vermont has been drawing attention to the issue, while the Vermont ag agency finds itself caught in the middle.

So do artisan cheese makers who are anxiously awaiting a decision from the Federal Food and Drug Administration on raw-milk cheeses. The FDA began its review in 2009 in response to some E. coli outbreaks. Cheese makers fear the agency may extend the 60-day minimum aging period for raw-milk cheeses or, worse, ban them outright.

As a result of this complicated, ongoing conflict, working with raw milk now seems like a subversive act, a middle finger to what localvore purists deem an industrial food system based on sterilization, pasteurization, genetic modification and processing in general.

After I carted my raw milk home, I set it in the refrigerator for a day to let its cream rise to the top. Lacking a separator, I watched for the faint line between milk and cream to form. I’d never taken a class, but I’d read that making butter is as simple as putting cream in a jar and shaking it for a half hour. I chose a more modern, albeit flawed, tool for the job: my leaky Cuisinart.

Scooping the pure cream from the top with a spoon and filling the processor halfway, I was careful not to taint it with any milk. After about two minutes of pulsing, the stuff thickened from velvety, viscous cream to a frothy whipped cream; after a minute more, it became a pale yellow mound that looked exactly like — well, whipped butter, sitting in a puddle of buttermilk that had been extracted by centrifugal force. Could it really be this easy?

I scooped out my butter by hand, placed it in a glass jar, covered the butter with water and shook vigorously. The water clouded as more milk escaped; I poured this away and repeated the process until the water ran clear. Then I decanted the butter into a bowl, sprinkled on some sea salt and squeezed excess milk from it with a fork, letting this, too, dribble away. (Leftover milk in the butter can cause it to sour more quickly.)

I was left with a generous dollop of pale-yellow butter. The whole process had taken about 10 minutes. I felt like a proud child as I presented some to my boyfriend with a cracker. “Try it,” I urged.

“Is this raw milk?” he asked. I nodded.

“This could kill you, you know,” he remarked, dipping the cracker into the pillowy fat.

He agreed that it tasted much fresher than anything store bought. And I still had a pint of buttermilk and some skim milk to spare. But had I just luckily dodged a bacterial bullet?

The next day, I visited Amanda Andrews at Tamarack Hollow Farm in Burlington. Here, along Route 127, she and her partner, Mike Betit, keep pigs, grow vegetables, and tend to four cows, an ox and a new calf. One cow was freshening, and another was at the end of her lactation; the outdoor farm refrigerator was filled with jugs of fresh, raw milk.

Andrews, 27, had been working in nonprofits in New York City when she decided urban life wasn’t for her. She moved north to New York’s Hudson Valley to work on a series of farms, deciding along the way that she’d like to produce her own dairy. “I think it’s a really important part of food sovereignty,” she says of raw milk. “Eating local food has to be more than just eating local chard.”

Coming from highly regulated New York state, Andrews was impressed by how much more forgiving Vermont seemed in terms of raw-milk sales. She and Betit taught a cheese class for Rural Vermont and were planning classes on their farm before February’s shutdown. Now, “if someone buys [milk], and they say, ‘I’m going home to make cheese,’ they put me in the position of illegal milk sales,” Andrews says, making me feel slightly guilty. “It’s a shame I can’t discuss cheese making with my customers,” she adds. “There’s definitely a demand for processed-raw-milk products. We’re waiting for the law to catch up.”

Without telling Andrews and Betit, I used some of their milk, along with cultures, rennet and citric acid that I picked up at my local health-food store — and my leftover raw milk from the previous day — to make mozzarella and ricotta. Most of it was much richer than what I was used to. My mozzarella was a bit rubbery, but making it myself was an intensely satisfying, if laborious, process.

Through raw-milk circles, I had heard that Vermont Rep. Cynthia Martin (D/W-Springfield) is sympathetic to the cause. Turns out she’s been milking her own Jerseys for a long time, starting with a cow named Buttercup 30 years ago. Though she’s too busy to do it right now, Martin has regularly made her own butter and yogurt. “I learned everything I could from a magazine,” she says, but she’s also in favor of classes.

“[The shutdown] didn’t make an awful lot of sense to me,” Martin continues. “I understand that raw milk is a tricky business, and I think the legislation that is in place is good. But if you’re able to have raw milk, I don’t see why people shouldn’t be taught how to use it in their kitchen properly.”

After I relate my adventures in cheese making, Martin remarks how easy it is to render a cream cheese from yogurt hung in cheesecloth. “It’s a little more tart, but I use it to make cheesecake,” she says.

Representatives of both the ag agency and Rural Vermont say a compromise is in the works that will allow the teaching of classes again. But in some ways, it might not matter when everything you need to know is on YouTube.

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