Jul 1, 2014

Year of Living Dangerously: Le Saulzais


According to the US Food and Drug Administration, I am taking my life in my own hands. The risks I take! The dangers I face! Oh, the horrors I subject myself to! But that's me: a brash, fearless daredevil who would cavalierly jeopardize my self and my loved ones just to...[insert evil, megalomaniacal take-over-the-world laugh]...eat cheese.


Since the 1950s, the US has banned the sale of imported cheese made with unpasteurized (raw) milk that had been aged less than 60 days. It appears that this in turn was largely the result of an outbreak of typhoid in Canada that had been blamed on some raw milk cheddar.

When I smuggle vacuum-packed cheese into the US for friends, I make good and sure it is both unpasteurized and well younger than 60 days, because if I'm going to the big-house for skirting the law, I might as well make it worth it.

Now, almost 70 years later, the US still has this ban on cheeses, though it's very difficult to know the exact age of a cheese, and there are fine-print points to the law that put it in gray territory. For example, since I'm not selling the vacuum-packed cheese but rather importing it for personal use and/or for gifting, then is it still illegal? In fact, it's only in the recent past -- since around 2005, that the FDA has started more stringently enforcing these rules. It seems to coincide both with the increased foodies-obsession with more authentic, raw milk products. But most cynics believe that much of it is as a bargaining chip in ongoing trade disputes with the European Union (largely over the importation of American beef) and as a showy way of supporting American farmers and the heavily-subsidized US dairy industry.

This spring, the FDA made a huge fuss over the importation of Mimolette, because the idea of the mites that eat away the holes in the crust is a mite too much to bear. For Americans. The French bear it just fine, merci beaucoup. In fact, the FDA banned its importation into the US, declaring it "disgusting".

You can see the report here, in French, after a long ad, at 45 seconds. One of the Frenchmen interviewed in the film says he's not surprised the Americans have banned it because, he stammers, "they don't know what is good." Sometimes, I am inclined to agree.

The newest hitch in the US is that the FDA recently strongly considered banning the use of wooden boards in the aging of cheeses -- including domestic, pasteurized milk cheeses such as cheddar as well as many of the best, highest-quality, artisanal cheeses.


Thankfully, the idea was abandoned, but still, if this keeps up, Americans are going to be left with nothing but those fake orange slices; the first time Gigi ever saw one of these was in an airplane snack sandwich. She was about five years old at the time, took a bite, then stopped and looked quizzically at the sandwich. She peeled the orange slice off and held it distastefully between her fingers asking, "What is this?" When I told her it was "American cheese," she responded haughtily -- and correctly, I believe -- "This is not cheese."

So while Americans are quietly outlawing raw cheeses, young cheeses, aged cheeses with mites, and cheeses aged on wood (what's next? cheeses made on Tuesday? cheese whose names have the letter "A" in them?), in a fifteen year period up to 2004, two people worldwide were reported to have died from eating raw milk cheeses. And we don't know if there were extenuating circumstances (compromised immune system or such). I assume the number of people who choked on cheese far exceeded that, frankly. During the same time, 450,000 people died from guns.

I have several American friends who are considering whether or not to move back to the US. And many of them cite the problem with guns, gun control (or complete lack thereof), and the now-regular school shootings as the main reason they would stay in France (and I must admit, this crosses my mind, too). As I write this, I am simultaneously reading a sad report from Oregon on the 74th American school shooting since the Sandy Hook tragedy of December 14, 2012 only 18 months ago. Statistically speaking, I expect we'll hit #75 before I can even finish writing this and post it. On the other hand, in the entire three years I've lived in France, there has only been one school shooting, a few months after Sandy Hook, at a Jewish school in Toulouse where three children and a Rabbi were killed by an Islamic extremist -- not by one of their own classmates.

In 2012, there were 35 homicides by firearm in France (for comparison: 11 in Japan, 132 in Canada, and 41 in England & Wales combined). Meanwhile, there were 9,146 in the United States. In the past few years, if you add both homicides and accidental deaths (but discount suicides), the US has roughly 11,000-12,000 per year. And even adjusting for population, of the 23 richest nations, you are around 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun in the US than in the other 22.

So I could live here for a year and eat fabulous cheeses, made in the way they've been crafted for centuries and -- sometimes millennia -- or I can go back to the US and brave unhealthy processed slices and hope that nobody I know or love (or nobody else, for that matter) gets shot to death. Now which is living dangerously?

THE CHEESE: Le Saulzais

Le Saulzais is a raw sheep's milk, farmhouse cheese that comes from the center of France. It's a very rare cheese to find, partly because it's so unusual to have a sheep's milk cheese coming from the center of France, which is neatly sandwiched between the cow and goat heartlands. There appears to be only one local farmer who has decided to brave sheep and the making of this sheep cheese, so don't expect to find it at your local store near you.

On the other hand, if you do happen across it, it's a great one to try. It has the typically earthy taste of a sheep's cheese, but also a slight lemony tang that is more commonly associated with goat cheeses. It is eaten young, generally after just three weeks of aging, and from January through September.


This raw milk, under-60-day-aged cheese is, evidently, worse than a lethal weapon, according to US law and FDA regulations. Yet my children, family, friends, and I eat it quite happily and live to tell the tale. Frankly, it doesn't even give me so much as indigestion, let alone a case of severe illness or death. I guess I'm just an adrenaline junkie.


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