In Praise of the Unpasteurized

My biggest regret about not living in France is cheese.

A few weeks ago, my friend Brian (he of 90/60 blood pressure and 48 bmp heart rate) arrived to a small birthday celebration I’d hastily thrown together for myself with several raw-milk cheeses he’d just brought back from France. I can’t even remember what I cooked — the cheeses were the stars of the night.

Contraband French cheeses

Contraband French cheeses

You are not allowed to bring soft unpasteurized cheese into the United States. Which technically makes Brian a smuggler. But these are cheeses worth any risk — rich, deep and complex in a way you just can’t find in the imported stuff.

When I was a kid and used to visit France, my father would buy several raw milk cheeses, wrap them up, and stick them in my bag. “Why are you putting them in my bag??” I would protest, and he would explain that there was more room in my bag. I would imagine the bag getting flagged by customs, and may Dad shrugging and saying, “Wow, I didn’t even know the kid had ’em in there!” Pretty smart strategy, I suppose.

Brian and his cheeses

Brian and his cheeses

My wife and I were returning from our European honeymoon on September 11, 2001. The morning of our departure, I ran around our Parisian neighborhood, the Marais, buying the most interesting raw cheeses I could find. I wrapped them carefully in a bag and buried them deep within my suitcase (apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I guess), and we set out for the airport.

About 10:30 a.m., as we approached the East Coast bound for Washington Dulles Airport, our plane made an abrupt right turn. We headed up the coast for 45 minutes or so until a stewardess came on to announce that we would be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia instead. Once there, we sat on the tarmac for 13 hours before being whisked out in the middle of the night, through the airport and onto busses, which drove us into the deep Nova Scotian darkness. We arrived around 5 a.m. at an unused military base in the country, where we would spend the next four-ish days with people from five other stranded flights wearing the same clothes every day because all anyone had was their carry-on bags.

It was after midnight on Day Four when they took us out under floodlights onto the tarmac at the Nova Scotia airport to collect our bags. I could smell my bag before I saw it.

It was early Saturday morning. Dark early. United Airlines flew us back to D.C., but would not be able to get us home to L.A. until Monday. So they very kindly put us all up at the Dulles Hyatt. Checked into our room, I was finally able to open my suitcase and check on my cheese. “It’s been in the cold hold of an airplane the whole time,” I optimistically told myself. “Maybe it’s still good!” The smell that exploded from my bag when I opened it told me otherwise.

“We’ve got to dispose of that somehow,” my wife said, as if we were trying to hide a corpse.

Sadly, I took my bag of cheese down the hall, furtively looking for somewhere to stash it. I eventually dropped it into a trash bin by the ice machine.

Our new friends we’d met from San Francisco were staying in a room down the hall from us. A little later that morning when we had made plans to go explore D.C., they knocked at our door. “Do you guys smell that awful smell?? I think somebody died.”

And I confessed.

My son Flynn gets in on the raw cheeses

My son Flynn gets in on the raw cheeses

Brian invited us out to his house in Pasadena a month or so after my birthday celebration. There on the bar was several cheeses. I looked at him with bright eyes, he nodded, and we dug in. Later that night, as we were preparing to leave, Brian motioned to a particularly delicious runny cheese which we had only eaten half of. “Why don’t you take that one home.”

I wrapped it carefully and passed it to my wife with a look of the deepest intention. When we arrived home, she was carrying on about home decor. “The only thing I care about is did you bring in the cheese that Brian gave us?” I said.

A few nights later, as I was elbow-deep in pre-prep for the huge auction dinner I was cooking a couple nights later and my wife had taken the kids to the beach for a party, I wondered what I could feed myself with that would be quick and easy. And I remembered the cheese.

I poured a glass of zinfandel, defrosted a hunk of crusty bread I had in the freezer, and played unpasteurized France for half an hour.

*    *    *

Same friend, Brian, gave me a book called “Deep Nutrition,” which has seriously shaken the foundations of my beliefs about what we should be eating, and what we are eating. The author studied cultures where there is little to no cancer, diabetes, dental problems and other plagues of modern society. She found that all their diets had certain things in common — raw dairy, meat on the bone, offal, fresh greens, fermented foods… And little to no refined vegetable oils and refined sugars.

At the same dinner that evening in Pasadena where Brian offered the illegal cheese, he also finished the meal with a little gelato served with some fermented raspberries he purchases on the sly from a Korean grocer. You can guess it’s probably not USDA approved. Fermented foods are one of the pillars of traditional cuisine celebrated in “Deep Nutrition.” Brian is into this stuff.

Like the cheese, the raspberries were alive on my palate. And I began to wonder if maybe we haven’t homogenized and pasteurized ourselves out of some of life’s most delicious and healthy foods… and right into some of its worst diseases.

Food for thought.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thefatcook
    May 23, 2014 @ 00:32:23

    Wow, I can’t believe you were in the air on 9/11. I was on a stationary bike at a gym where everyone stared at TV screens, and oddly, kept on exercising just like normal while the towers collapsed. I think it was a shock response.

    Can’t agree more on the nutrition front. But, rebuilding a food industry that would give us that type of food would be quite the undertaking. Until then, as Michael Pollan says, eat more fruits and vegetables and meat, but not a lot.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 23, 2014 @ 01:15:51

      That’s a great story about the gym. I always enjoy hearing what people were doing that morning. The crazy thing for us is that we had just been in Istanbul, and were all smitten with Islamic culture.

      Reply

  2. thefatcook
    May 23, 2014 @ 14:02:52

    I often wonder if this isn’t part of the solution to fixing the agricultural problems of America and improving our food supply: http://www.newfarm.org/features/0303/newzealand_subsidies.shtml

    Reply

  3. Dragnfli
    May 23, 2014 @ 14:54:28

    Ok, I’m drooling right now and I just ate some eggs cooked with yummy bits from the garden. One of those cheeses would have been PERFECT to go with.

    Reply

  4. Jessamine in PDX
    May 23, 2014 @ 17:41:19

    Ha! That whole cheese smuggling story made me laugh out loud. We have successfully gotten cheese through customs from Montreal to PDX but totally got busted taking foie from St Martin into the US. Damn foie-sniffing beagle outed us. But yay to unpasturized goodness! Looks delicious.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 23, 2014 @ 20:56:51

      A foie-gras sniffing beagle — OMG!!! I wonder if they let him eat what he finds?? I thought I was going to get busted at LAX returning from Tokyo with a big wasabi root in my bag. But I guess they haven’t trained the dogs on wasabi yet.

      Reply

  5. Greggie
    May 23, 2014 @ 18:50:34

    Great story. I didn’t know about the cheese smuggling part of your trip home. Reminded me of Lucy trying to smuggle baby Cheddar, I mean “Chester” in the tuba to avoid paying customs fee.

    Reply

  6. Michelle
    May 26, 2014 @ 01:41:31

    D’accord.

    Reply

  7. Sally
    May 26, 2014 @ 12:05:06

    How is it that our society is scared of foods like this but happy to stock packets, jars and tins of things that are packed full of preservatives and chemicals. I’m with you cheese-smuggler.

    Reply

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