You don’t see, hear or notice them. But they are here and there nonetheless, all around you, discreet; incognito, even. They brush with illegality, potentially endangering their health and braving authorities for a good glass of milk, old-fashioned style, straight from the cow. They are raw milk drinkers.
The sale of un-pasteurized milk is illegal in most states, including ours. But with techniques reminiscent of the Prohibition era, aficionados use a Florida loop hole to get their ways. Raw milk sale for human consumption is against the law; But buying raw milk for your pet (wink, wink!) is, however, perfectly legal.
Call farmers and tell them Sparky, your Bichon Frise, would enjoy a gallon of raw milk, and they will Fed Ex it in no time. What happens at home, behind closed doors, well, happens at home behind closed doors.
Under the so-called “pet law”, approximately 1500 gallons of raw milk are delivered to the Tampa Bay area weekly. An underground, parallel micro-economy!
I talked to many farmers and raw-milk-drinking Bichon Frise owners. One chiropractic doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, and whose passion is “in how traditional cultures have used foods to maintain excellent health” says he himself orders about a gallon a week, delivered in a co-op fashion to certain distribution points. Raw milk speakeasies?
These mysterious “blind pig” joints, although perfectly legal since all dairy products are carefully labeled for pet consumption, are hard to locate. Many farmers refuse to talk. There seems to be about 10 distribution points in the bay area. The transactions happen at volunteers’ homes, superstore parking lots or just on the side of the road. Some health food stores carry raw milk for pet consumption although, I hear from Sparky, it does not have the same gustative quality as the milk from local producers.
While advocates for the benefits of un-pasteurized milk, which they’d rather call “fresh farm milk”, push for laxer regulations, the government couldn’t be clearer. On the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, the risks are clearly explained. Pasteurization kills disease-causing germs. “Each year”, CDC explains, “people become ill from drinking raw milk and eating foods made from raw dairy products”. Raw milk may harbor disease-causing organisms and cause common symptoms of food borne illness including diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, headache, vomiting, and exhaustion.
Drinking raw milk products is “like playing Russian roulette with your health,” says John Sheehan, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Dairy and Egg Safety.
On the other hand, advocates of raw milk maintain, correctly, that some components survive in milk that has not been pasteurized, which can aid digestion and boost immunity. “In 25 years of watching families consume raw milk I find… that their health generally increases”, the anonymous chiropractic doctor told me.
”Drinking raw milk is no more dangerous than eating fast food”, says a farmer who describes herself as a health-conscious mother. She also claims that the government is overprotective of the big dairy companies and ignores the validity of small farmers handling their herd with conscious sanitation. The farms I visited for this story all use clean, sterile equipment; keep the milk in sealed, sanitized stainless bucket; cool it immediately; keep it chilled until consumption, and use other precautions to limit risks.
The metaphoric image of the Russian roulette sure seems daunting, but I went ahead, tried my luck, and ordered milk for my Bichon Frise. Raw milk seems thicker, richer, creamier. Milk takes the taste of what the animals eat, and usually changes from herd to herd, depending on feed, soil, and location. Grazing goats may dine on wild onions, garlic or any number of different tasting weeds. Some raw milk cheese from certain areas of Spain, for instance, naturally tastes like rosemary, thyme, and other herbs that the goats graze while roaming freely in the hills.
My sample is delicious. Mildly sweet and very rich from high butterfat content. “Back before pasteurization, people could tell the quality of raw milk by the size of the cream line on the milk” says Sarah Pope, local representative of the Weston A. Price foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes health through intergenerational consumption of nutrient-dense whole foods.
Meanwhile, I can’t help but getting flash backs from the late 70’s, when in rural areas of France, it was cool to run to the farm and grab a quart of milk, use the cream to make cakes and give the raw milk to children.
In California and some other states, raw milk is tested and legal. And that might actually be the common ground between government and raw-milk advocates. If only raw-milk production and sale could be monitored, tested and approved, the dairy farms not operating under strict standards would be restricted from selling for human consumption, while the other would be authorized to do what civilization has been doing for centuries and centuries.
The issues just don’t seem to be as black or white (dangerous vs. safe) as the government wants them to be. Who’s to say that raw milk in the traditional sense, from cows eating natural feed on pasture wouldn’t be safer than pasteurized milk coming from confined cows in a large dairy company?
The case of artisan cheese.
The problem with regulations, I find, is that they are often created by a bunch of people who never tasted great cheese. You see, raw milk harbors bacteria that constitute the soul of great cheese. Raw-milk cheese, if you can find it, is the crème de la crème, no pun intended. The character of this kind of cheese, its depth, softness or pungency, its richness, its “terroir” (the effect that the local environment has on a particular product), otherwise “killed” by pasteurization, is what makes cheese tasting interesting and memorable.
In America, in some specialized gourmet stores, you can find cheese made from never-pasteurized milk. Archaic FDA regulations allow the use of raw milk in cheese making, provided that the cheese ages longer than 60 days before distribution. The aging process changes the chemical environment within the cheese, making it harder for potential pathogens to survive.
Sparky and I have tried to use raw milk in all recipes that call for milk like mashed potatoes, cakes, sauces, crepe batter, scrambled eggs. Crème brulee’ is superior, and so is ice cream. I have also tasted a pecorino-like raw milk cheese, made locally, on the outskirt of Tampa, that was outstanding. The texture and taste of culinary preparation is not affected, whether the milk is raw or not. However, it adds a little full bodied, wholesome richness that pleases the palate as well as the soul.