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U.S. cheese rules - pasteurization, etc.

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Can someone bring me up to speed on the current laws and how they are affecting our access to good cheese? I recently bought some Montasio at a cheese shop, and it was nowhere near as good as the stuff I bring back from Italy. Same goes for the Parmigiano-Reggiano I buy here (yes, the real stuff).

Thanks!

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  1. It used to be that raw milk cheeses were okay if they were more than 60 days old. And then a couple of years ago they banned raw milk cheeses entirely. But my cheesemonger has a lot of imported raw milk cheeses these days, so maybe they've gone back to the 60-day rule.

    Cheese imports are governed by USDA rules, not by "laws," so basically, the rule is whatever the USDA says it is that week.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      That would explain it, but this article written in 2005 would seem to suggest that, at least as of then, the 60 day rule was still in effect. The youngest Montasios are aged 4-6 months...

      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        I don't know where you live but my husband and I own a cheese shop in San Diego, CA and we have a great supply of raw milk cheeses both domestic and imported - and no problem at all getting them in.

        The rule as I understand it is simply that unpasteurized cheese must be aged at least 60 days before it can be sold in the US. So, if it's an import, that means it's at least 2 months old before it's even shipped to the US.

        Almost daily I hear from customers about how much better the cheese they had in Italy (or other spot) than what they get here. I think atmosphere, mindset, etc can have something to do with that, but what also happens is people eat what's available in the various regions they're traveling in and often, those cheeses are very regional, small production and unavailable for export.

        On Parmigianno Reggiano, the rules are pretty firm and if you're getting real DOC (domain o'controle...Italy's regulatory body) parma, your variations should be minimal. If you find it to be lacking and you're sure it's DOC, I'd check into another monger as yours may not be taking appropriate care of the cheese.

        1. re: mimosa

          Thank you for one of the clearest, most concise, and most informed CH replies on any topic. In this case, I hope people take note of exactly what you've said.

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Hear hear!! I second that! Thank you!

          2. re: mimosa

            A few things I want to add to mimosa's excellent post (as a *former* cheese shop owner).

            Parm Reggiano comes in different ages, and this does lead to variability. My catalogs had PR anywhere between 12 months to 5 years. I found the 2 year to be the perfect age for the nutty, crystally but not-too dry texture/taste. Obviously younger will be the least expensive, and some make take that shortcut, which results in a less complex cheese. Then there's the import process. You sample a nice cheese in the region where it was made and loved, it can be a different experience from on that's been shipped in less than cave-optimal conditions.

            Annnnd.... The first time you cut into a cheese- it will never, ever improve after that. The first time air hits that interior, it starts to degrade and lose flavor. If you've got a piece from a wheel that's been open for some time, you will not have that "fresh-cracked" zing as a new wheel.

            And then, there is the "Rosso" variation, which is made from red cows, is much more expensive, but that's another story.

            1. re: cheesemonger

              Yes, I should've mentioned that as the King of Cheeses, Parm is at its most kingly from the center of a freshly split 80lb wheel. (salivating now)

              We made a party of splitting a wheel for our grand opening a few years ago and since then, we try to let folks know when a wheel's being split. I hate to see the last pound go to the spoilage bin but it's really hard to sell when you know a fresh wheel awaits.

              Be forewarned, once you try PR off a freshly split wheel, you're setting yourself up for much disappointment thereafter. But do it anyway, you'll thank me.

              1. re: mimosa

                Hey everyone, wow, fantastic responses all around. To clarify, I don't really have a problem with the PR or Grana Padano I get here in the U.S., although most of it does seem to lack the "crystally" element, which is one of its best characteristics. Based on your explanations, I'm guessing this is probably due to exposure after the wheel is cut up? The difference in flavor with the Montasio still has me confused, but maybe it's the same thing: exposure/improper storage.

                Mimosa, if you have an email list I'd love to be added. Also, I don't know if you ever deal directly with the Italians, but if you ever need any help let me know. I'm fluent in Italian and understand/speak a little of the dialects of the Veneto.

              2. re: cheesemonger

                Even though all Reggiano Parms are DOC, meeting strict standards, they come from (I think) about 300 different dairies, so there will be differences in flavor based on factors including air in the aging rooms. Also, some people become concerned as to what time of the year the cows were milked -- spring milk tastes different from winter milk, etc. As for the "Rosso" or Red Cow, that is simply the king of the king of cheeses, and worth sourcing out and paying for. It is utterly fantastic.

                1. re: pitterpatter

                  There are a few interesting tidbits in this writeup from the Gambero Rosso site (translation is mine. I couldn't find it on the English lang version)...

                  People say and know many things about Parmigiano Reggiano: that it's the kind of cheeses, that it has ancient origins, that even Boccaccio spoke of it in the Decameron.

                  But perhaps not everyone knows that Parmigiano is produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of the provinces of Bologna (on the left bank of the Reno) and Mantova (right bank of the Po). And that it's not all the same but actually changes depending on its provenance and who made it; to identify it, all you need to do is look at the number imprinted on the rind: if there are three numbers "underneath the thousand," [I'm not sure what this means -- perhaps you who have inspected more wheels of Parmigiano know what they're talking about] it comes from the cheese factories located in the hills of Reggio, where it originally comes from and where the most "typical" (true to its roots) parmigiano is still made.

                  The Parmigiano that has maintained the strictest adherence to tradition is that made in the factories of the mountains and hills -- along the stretch of the Appennines between Parma and Reggio -- at the end of the summer or beginning of fall, when the cows are not undergoing any intestinal or metabolic changes.

                  To be "good" Parmigiano Reggiano needs to be more than just "old." In fact, only Parmigiano Reggiano of exceptional quality can or should be aged for a long time.

                  In addition, the quality depends not only on the area, pasture, and producer but also on the season, as well as the health condition of the cows, dairyman, and the person who ages the cheese.

                  According to some people, the cream of the crop is the Parmigiano Reggiano "of the red cows," which is produced with the milk of the ancient and prized Reggiana breed of cows (characterized by its red coat), a sort of "grand cru" -- because the milk used is richer and more flavorful and lends itself well to cheese making; because the cows are raised correctly and fed with hay and herbs from the fields of Reggio, which are rich with "essences"; and finally because the work is carried out according to criteria even more rigorous and selective than those -- already very refined -- of the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano.

              3. re: mimosa

                As a cheese store owner can u help us on getting started-
                I am a beginner and some here are advanced and I feel lost starting out with a strong cheese.

                I think we need discuss how this topic will be developed-

                1. re: jpr54_1

                  You are responding to a 6 year old thread, if you did not know.

            2. Look at this thread for an excellent viewpoint from the Customs end of things : http://www.chowhound.com/topics/353902