Cheese, glorious cheese.
Americans can’t get enough – consumption has increased steadily over the last 20 years. Yet, there are many cheeses unavailable to consumers in the US. The FDA’s stringent regulations mean that cheese made with raw milk and aged for less than 60 days is banished from “the land of the free”.
Here are some of the best European cheeses US citizens are missing out on, thanks to what’s been called America’s “lacto-conservatism”. Buckle up.
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Camembert de Normandie
You might know camembert, but you haven’t tasted the real camembert until you’ve tasted it in its original form.
The first camembert was made from unpasteurised milk in the late 18th century, in Camembert, Normandy.
And the authentic, traditional variety, properly called Camembert de Normandie, is required by law to be made with only unpasteurised milk.
In France, cheesemakers age camembert for less than 60 days, and use raw milk. It’s therefore unavailable to those living in the US, because of the FDA’s regulations on cheese (on which more later).
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Reblochon de Savoie, Époisses de Bourgogne and Brie de Meaux
Three more French cheeses here, and three of the best.
Reblochon (above) is another semi-soft, raw cheese. It might actually be older than the United States itself.
Its name is a derivative of the French verb reblocher, meaning “to pinch a cow’s udder again”. This is because, in the 14th century, landowners taxed farmers according to milk production. So farmers would measure their yield before fully milking their cows. The milk that remained in the cows’ udders for longer was richer, and became Reblochon.
Époisses is younger, having started life in the 16th century. It’s smellier, too. It takes some getting used to, but after a few tastings – sometimes with a spoon, because it’s so soft – it’ll win you over.
And Brie de Meaux, aka the “king of cheeses”, might just be the oldest cheese on this list. A modern legend traces its roots way back to 774 AD, when Frankish emperor Charlemagne used to order two cartloads of the “rich and creamy” stuff to his residence in Aachen.
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Morbier and Mimolette
Morbier gets its name from a town in France’s Franche-Comté region. Like a couple of its forbears on this list, it’s ivory-coloured, soft and slightly elastic.
But Morbier is recognisable by the thin black layer separating its top and bottom halves. Traditionally, this line separated morning milk from evening milk. The black layer used to consist of wood ash. Nowadays, however, factories have replaced it with edible commercial vegetable ash.
Mimolette, meanwhile, is bright orange. It comes in large balls and resembles a cantaloupe melon. Mimolette gets its distinctive flavour, and weather-beaten appearance, from the cheese mites cheesemakers add to its surface.
Yes, that’s right. Cheese mites. Or flour mites. Either way, they’re living mites whose digestion of fungi produces distinct flavour profiles in cheese.
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Finally Casu Martzu, an illegal cheese and certainly not for the faint of heart
The name of Casu martzu literally translates to “rotten/putrid cheese”. It’s a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese containing live insect larvae – or maggots.
Sardinia is an Italian island. A variation of the cheese is also produced in Corsica, a French island north of Sardinia.
Cheesemakers remove part of the rind of Casu martzu so that the cheese fly Piophila casei can lay its eggs on the surface. The eggs hatch and the larvae start to eat the cheese. Acid from the maggots’ digestive system breaks down the fats in the cheese, which makes the resultant texture very soft.
A table-ready Casu martzu contains thousands of maggots. And, since aficionados consider it unsafe to eat once the maggots have died, you’ve got to eat them alive.
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Why are certain cheeses illegal in the US?
The United States’ “lacto-conservatism”, as Tasting Table puts it, dates back to 1949. The FDA apparently observed a typhoid outbreak in Canada and linked it to young cheese made with unpasteurised, or raw, milk.
Since then, the US has been very tetchy about the domestic production, and eventually importation, of young raw milk cheeses.
Alternatives are available. But artisan cheesemakers call these “dead” cheeses.
For advice on how to get your hands on banned raw-milk cheese, living in the US, read Tasting Table’s guide here.