Young raw-milk cheeses are illegal in the United States because they are swimming with bacteria that—theoretically, anyway—can make you sick or even kill you. Listeria is the primary offender, but health officials also fret about E. coli and salmonella. Of course, it’s these very bacteria—and the gooey conditions in which they thrive—that constitute the soul of transcendent cheese. “Cheese is a natural, living animal,” says Joe Manacusso, the cheese buyer for Citarella in New York City. “It shouldn’t be treated with heat and plastic the way it is in this country. That compromises the product. Yes, there is a small factor of contamination from raw-milk cheeses, but the French have been eating this way for hundreds of years without much consequence.”
Not long ago, an enterprising cheese junkie could stroll into just about any decent gourmet shop in America, establish a rapport with the cheesemonger, and risk listeria to her heart’s content. No need for whispered asides or prearranged signals; most retailers just weren’t worried about getting caught. But after decades of sporadic enforcement, the FDA has recently stepped up its efforts to block the importation of illegal cheeses and to harass retailers who openly flog the rules.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Huh? Just yesterday I bought a pound of Isigny Camembert at the Food Lion.” I’m sure you did. And I’m sure that the cheese was delightful. But I would bet you a wheel of Banon de Grand Mère that it had a red label (not the blue or white label that marks Isigny’s French version), which means it was aged for at least 60 days. Unpasteurized cheeses aged 60 days or longer are legal in this country because, the FDA contends, any potentially harmful bacteria will have died by then. U.S. cheese shops are full of unpasteurized cheeses aged for longer than 60 days—and lots of them are fantastic. Ditto for many of the artisanal pasteurized cheeses produced in the United States. (Pasteurized cheeses, wherever they’re made, have no age requirement.)
But Europeans prefer a 30-day aging period for their raw-milk cheeses, and those are illegal here. Really, though, how much difference could 30 days make? I’ve eaten young cheeses on trips to Europe, and yes, many were extraordinary. But to be honest, I question the objectivity of my palate while on vacation. Everything tastes like magic when you’re drunk and don’t have to work for 10 days. Would the cheeses be so good if consumed in neutral territory, sober, on a school night? That’s what I set out to discover.