What you need to know about raw milk cheese

13 March 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Unpasteurised cheese, also known as raw milk cheese, has recently been in the spotlight in the UK. Speciality Food explores what makes these cheeses special, as well as consumers’ most frequently asked questions
What you need to know about raw milk cheese

The British cheese industry was rocked on Christmas Eve 2023 when a favourite maker amongst speciality cheesemongers, Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese, had several products pulled off shelves after being issued an emergency precautionary recall. Despite thorough testing showing no sign of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, the outbreak strain of the suspect pathogen, and being given the all-clear to resume sales, questions swirled around what it all meant for speciality cheesemakers of raw milk cheeses.

“With the investigation into Kirkham’s Lancashire, the future of the last raw milk farmhouse version of this important style of British cheese has been threatened, not to mention the status of raw milk British cheese as a whole,” Neal’s Yard Dairy wrote in a blog post.

What makes unpasteurised raw milk cheese so important in the British cheese landscape, and how can retailers help to support makers? Speciality Food dives in.

What is raw milk cheese, and how is it different?

Unpasteurised cheese is made with milk that has not been pasteurised, also known as ‘raw milk’. Because of this, raw milk cheese has a more intense flavour and offers a subtler sense of terroir, with its flavours reflecting where and when it was made – right down to what the animals were grazing on.

The intense flavours of raw milk cheese can transform consumers’ appreciation for cheese as a whole, but it is not only a staple for fine food retailers and dedicated cheesemongers. “Raw milk cheese is more common than you think,” says Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy. “Every block of Parmesan, Comté, and Roquefort sold (whether it be in a small retailer or Tesco) is raw milk.”

But while it’s true that raw milk cheeses are much more common than consumers might realise, they are still truly artisan products that require careful production. “Raw milk cheeses need to be made with the utmost care – it isn’t simply a case of ‘not pasteurising,’” Andy explains.

Good quality raw milk cheese starts in the field with the forage and breed of cow being as important as the milking and cheesemaking procedures and hygiene.

Unpasteurised cheese is best made, Andy says, on the farm where the milk can be used warm and fresh from the cow. “Thereafter, the procedures of making cheese are broadly similar to all cheeses, with the key cheesemaking and hygiene controls of fermentation (acidification), moisture loss and salting.”

Supporting raw milk cheesemakers

The care that raw milk cheeses naturally require, and the way they buck the trend for ultra-processed foods are part of what makes them special. “In my opinion, [raw milk] allows for you to produce a cheese that truly reflects the farm on which you are making that cheese in its character,” Andy says. “It’s not just a milk which is pasteurised, standardised, that you then add bacteria to to make cheese, but it is a reflection of that place.”

Here in the UK, it also represents our cheesemaking history. Raw milk cheesemaking, Andy says, “is incredibly difficult to do, part of Britain’s social history and hopefully makes a product unique to that place and farm.” For retailers, stocking raw milk cheeses shows a sign of support to these special and hardworking producers.

With more consumers interested in eating seasonally and locally, raw milk cheese provides retailers with a perfect artisan answer. What’s more, when compared with pasteurised or more processed cheeses, it offers something for shoppers who are keen to eat healthier and more natural foods. “It’s not just important for flavour, but also diversity of microbes and microbial communities,” Andy says. “This diversity has many advantages – we’re only just starting to understand this importance on our daily lives.”

And by supporting raw milk cheesemakers, retailers are encouraging producers who champion the highest farming and hygiene practices. Andy believes it’s his job as a British cheesemonger to advocate for these producers. “Being small scale, many of these farmers don’t have the support of big marketing departments or salesmen on the road, so I feel it is our job as a cheesemonger to get their message across and stand by them.”

Is unpasteurised cheese safe?

As pasteurised cheese is heat-treated to kill off bacteria that may be present in raw milk, such as E. coli and listeria, consumers may wonder if unpasteurised cheese is really safe to eat. While pasteurising is common and, for large producers using milk from multiples dairies, often important, it’s not necessary to guarantee safety for smaller-scale producers. What’s more, pasteurisation also kills off the natural microflora needed to make cheese, so producers must add specific bacterial cultures back in during the cheesemaking process.

As Andy says, good practices start on the farm. Pathogens are unlikely to be found in milk of well-kept animals or a high-quality dairy.

Not only does the heat treating of milk remove the ‘good’ bacteria as well as the bad, but it also doesn’t guarantee the prevention of foodborne illnesses. Pasteurisation can even act as an excuse for producers to be less stringent on safety and hygiene.

Raw milk cheese today is made with careful production methods and good hygiene – including regular tests that cheesemakers are legally required to do. While there are risks to eating unpasteurised cheese, there are also risks with eating pasteurised cheese, or other foods that have been associated with cases of food poisoning, like lettuce. Outbreaks of food poisoning, while very rare, occur from pasteurised cheese as well as unpasteurised. One analysis by Public Health England in 2004/5 found no difference between the risk of the pasteurised and unpasteurised cheeses sampled.

However, according to NHS advice, people who are pregnant should avoid unpasteurised milk and cheeses, with the exception of hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, Gruyère and Parmesan which can be eaten even if unpasteurised.

Examples of raw milk cheese

In addition to the well-loved unpasteurised cheeses made on the continent, which include Gruyère, Camembert, Asiago and many more, there are numerous cheesemakers on British shores who demonstrate the broad range of flavours that the category can encompass.

“For me, our cheese shop wouldn’t be complete without Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stonebeck, St James, Hafod, Stichelton, Appleby’s Cheshire, Sparkenhoe Vintage and Young Buck,” Andy says. “There is a reason these have become iconic British cheeses – they should be the backbone of any good cheese shop.”

Frequently asked questions about unpasteurised cheese

Customers in your shop may still have questions about raw milk cheeses, so it’s important to educate yourself and your team about the qualities of both pasteurised and unpasteurised cheeses.

Is raw milk cheese good for you?

There are some health benefits to eating raw milk cheese compared to pasteurised cheese, as it contains more protein, vitamins, minerals and probiotics, which are ‘good’ gut healthy bacteria.

Does unpasteurised cheese have lactose?

Unpasteurised cheese does have lactose, but for people with lactose intolerance it is easier to digest because there are certain enzymes present that help to produce lactase, which helps break down lactose.

How long does raw milk cheese last?

Raw milk, or unpasteurised, cheese will last the same amount of time as pasteurised cheese. The quality that will have the greatest effect on how well a cheese keeps is its moisture content, with aged Parmesan or Cheddar, for example, naturally lasting longer than high-moisture cheeses like Brie.

Can you buy unpasteurised cheese in the UK?

Yes, you can buy unpasteurised cheese in the UK at both independent retailers, like cheesemongers, farm shops and delis, and supermarkets.

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