When considering how far removed we as industrialized eaters have become from our food, milk is one of the first things that comes to mind. How many of us can actually say we understand the process of pasteurization, or what exactly ‘homogenized milk’ means? Not to mention, why did we even begin making our milk this way in the first place? It wasn’t until I began studying raw milk cheese in France that I realized quite how many misconceptions I had brought with me into adulthood, when I was the sole actor in determining my food choices. Spending time with farmers and cheese-makers in the French region of Jura, I was quickly enamored by my first contact with the concept of savoir faire. While it’s difficult to accurately define savoir faire in the context of food, the simplest explanation I can give is that it’s the role of the human actor in production, the dialogical relationship between man and earth, and a cultural appreciation of tradition. Over the years, France has tirelessly valorized the tradition of savoir faire to the point where it’s become embedded into the cultural vernacular. Aside from the cultural capital produced from this concept—I personally can’t think of many other countries who are so globally renowned for their traditions of food as France—savoir faire is also important because it fundamentally ties the appreciation of food from the eater back to the producer.
The thought that I would find a raw milk cheese producer in Southern Maryland never even crossed my mind. I saw the table for P.A. Bowen Farmstead during the Buy Local Challenge at Robin Hill and was immediately curious when I saw “Raw Milk” emblazoned on the signage. Having talked with Amy, the Marketing Manager who was manning the table, I learned that they were one of three raw milk cheese producers in the entire state of Maryland. Amy and her husband Brian moved from California to work with Sally Fallon, the brains behind P.A. Bowen Farmstead, acclaimed author, and founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation. After sampling a small piece of their Aquasco Jack cheese, I knew I had to visit the farm.
I arrived to P.A. Bowen on an early morning not even a week later. A light summer rain perfumed the air with familiar fragrances of dampened earth and dew-kissed grass. The sun was hidden behind an omnipotent blanket of clouds, and the sound of my car tires crunching gravel was greeted with the squeals of excited piglets. I made it just in time to see the morning milking. Sally greeted me out front of the Farm Store, an unmissable and impressive red barn, and led me to the back where Brian, the Farm Manager and cheese-maker, had started milking. In a strange way, I had been transported back to Jura. Not simply because of the sights, sounds, and smells, for the Jurassian terroir is drastically different from that of Southern Maryland, but because here I was witnessing a strikingly similar relationship between man and animal. Brian knew not only the names of every cow he was milking, but also sensed their temperaments, schedules, and health conditions. To me, this is what milk and cheese production should be about—the interpretation and reciprocity of the messages transmitted from the land.
After each cow was carefully milked, we moved inside the indoors to begin the process of testing and bottling the milk they sold. I want to be careful here to distinguish that the milk is only sold for animal consumption and therefore is appropriately bottled and labelled. Because of governmental regulation, selling raw milk for human consumption is prohibited in the state of Maryland. The process of pasteurization came about because of the simultaneous increase of demand for milk and consolidation of dairy farms. With larger herds to manage and constraints on profitability, dairy farmers were unable to pay as careful attention to the health conditions of their cows, which means that inevitably the milk from sick cows was being pooled with the milk from healthy cows. In order to avoid consumers falling ill from this contaminated milk, producers began pasteurizing milk to remove the bacteria, some of which then are reintroduced artificially. While at a surface level this doesn’t sound so bad, pasteurization also removes many of the enzymes, health promoting qualities, and much of the natural taste. Thus, it no longer matters what the cows are fed, how they are treated, how the milk tastes, or how many times a day they are milked. What has come to matter is how many gallons are on the shelf of the grocery store and what the expiration date is. It made me further ponder the correlation between increasing industrialized food production and the natural distrust many Americans have of their food.
Having finished testing and refrigerating the milk, it was time to see where the cheese production occurred. Donning robes, hair net, and shoe coverings, Sally led me through the modest but pristine facility while we discussed her journey to becoming a raw milk cheese producer. Born in California, Sally’s father was one of the first people to plant wine-growing grapes in Healdsburg, CA so needless to say pioneering agricultural methods was not foreign to her. She also spent some time living in Paris years ago, which furthered her appreciation for traditional food production and cooking. For those who have never been to Paris, the open air market culture is still very much alive and even today you’ll find many consumers who regularly buy from producers with whom they’ve cultivated lasting relationships. Thus, Sally realized fairly early on the dire condition of American foodscapes. We concluded our tour of the facility in the aging room where we were greeted by strong, lactic aromas emanating from the small rounds of cheeses sitting happily on their shelves. Organized by type and age, there were varieties of jack, cheddar, and blue cheese eagerly awaiting maturity.
Sally then asked if I’d like to see the rest of the farm and before long, we were traversing the dampened earth on her golf cart. The property extended back a number of acres and the wooded foliage appeared magnetic against the gentle cloak of rain. At P.A. Bowen Farmstead they keep not only dairy cows, Jersey and Swiss to be precise, but also a variety of pigs, chickens, and geese—one of which got loose and we had to catch! All of the animals contribute to the sustainability and diversity of the farm. Like many parts of Europe, the pigs are fed the whey from the cows along with grains provided by local brewers, which helps to bring out the complex and succulent flavor of the animal and ensure minimal waste. They also offer a variety of classes on topics like artisan cheese-making and butchering, and hope to eventually offer event space. Talking with Sally, increasing production has proven somewhat difficult. In order to operate under an ethos of sustainability and seasonality, the entrepreneurial spirit must be met with guarded reservation. In a capitalist society where patriotism has been intrinsically tied to consumption, how can we change behaviors to better appreciate and valorize small-scale practices and savoir faire, especially when this means relinquishing convenience and instantaneity? In my mind, this is one of the biggest obstacles producers like Sally and many of the others I’ve interviewed face. That said, the pioneering spirits of her and her team give me hope for progress. After catching the aforementioned loose goose, Sally sent me on my way with some samples of cheese and an illustrated book on her time in Paris. I spent the rest of my week demolishing the Chesapeake Cheddar paired with a local Chambourcin wine, courtesy of Janemark Winery, and flipping through the pages of Sally’s illustrated book reminiscing about the Parisian neighborhoods to which I would return a week later.