Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a coveted Italian hard cheese known the world over as the ‘King of Cheeses.” So exacting are production standards that set quality control for the product that across Europe, no other cheese may be called Parmesan for fear that a lesser impostor be confused with the real thing. Of course, in the United States, we give the finger to terroir and food tradition, sticking the Parmesan label on whatever happens to look like the real thing. I’d venture most people stocking their fridge with ‘Parmesan’ cheeses are happily and obliviously munching away on a knock-off. It’s probably not long until rebellious hipsters have their own Parmesan variation made from pulped milkweed leaves. Mmm.
I’ve digressed right off the bat. It’s not the cheese I set out to discuss today. Cheese, of course, is made from milk, and the milk, in the case of Parmigiano-Reggiano, comes from a cow. Not surprisingly, even the sweet fluid base ingredient of world-renowned cheese is produced with careful, precise measures to ensure only the best of the best milk makes it to the cheese room. It was the detailed descriptions of Italian dairies and rugged farmers in a book titled Real Food / Fake Food by Larry Olmsted that captured my imagination.
Dairy farms have always appealed to me on a certain level. You won’t find someone better at growing and harvesting sweet, rich forages than the dairyman, and their fields are something to see in the summer. All of that lush feed is blended and delivered to waiting cows who contentedly munch away between milkings in the parlor. The smells and sights of a well run dairy are almost unparalleled.
What’s a shame is the reality that our milk supply, like most of the food we consume, has become a commodity. By nature, a commodity is not considered unique and is thus sold at or near the cost to produce it, because the same thing can be purchased the next farm over, and the next one after that, and so on across the country. The cheapest producer wins, and, as is the case with corn or commodity beef, there is a race to the bottom among dairy farmers trying to see who can sell the most of something for the least money the fastest. I’m not sure if all the guys going out of business won or lost that race.
Here’s the rub: it’s pretty tough to produce a desirable product when your objective is to make a lot for nothing. Furthermore, centralizing processing and creating consistency across the entire country yields an end product that doesn’t exactly inspire customer enthusiasm. Think about it: when was the last time you were thrilled to put a gallon of milk in your cold storage? Probably never. Milk is so common we don’t value it at all.
Which brings us back to Real Food / Fake Food and my longstanding affection for dairy farms. Olmsted paints a picture of milk that is valuable. It’s coveted. The stuff is produced to a very high standard, from a very specific location, under rigid protocols, because it isn’t just some bland fluid used to float cereal. Though it sounds odd, I was salivating while reading and subsequently re-reading the descriptions of specialty Italian dairies operated by gruff, stubborn Italian farmers making sweet, frothy, specialty milk for some of the most famous cheese in the world. ‘That,’ I remember thinking, ‘is what I want to have here!’
Indeed, it was the book that started my quest for desirable milk close to home. I became obsessed with the idea and eventually located a specialty store that sells both raw and pasteurized milk from a family dairy located in Sandy Lake. Raw milk (not pasteurized or homogenized) appeals to me and I would purchase large quantities of the stuff each time I passed near the store on my way home from a monthly beef delivery. The glass jars, each containing truly delicious milk topped with a thick layer of cream, were a prize that excited me each time I opened the refrigerator door. I was getting close to the dream of authentic, pure milk.
Still, though, I had never visited the dairy farm and I was purchasing milk through a middleman. There was room for improvement. I like closer connections. Which is why I became ecstatic after learning this spring that my friend Andrew Henry and his wife Jill had begun the arduous task of becoming licensed to sell raw milk from their dairy farm in Knox. Additionally, they’re applying for a grant to install a pasteurizer and bottling line at their farm so sales can be expanded beyond the farm gate. Joy, oh joy. What a boost for Clarion County!
Raw milk licensing came into effect at the Henry farm in July. Gina found me a new plastic container to use specifically for farm runs, and I made my first milk purchase directly from the farm on July 11.
My goodness. This is excellent on a different kind of level, because the whole of the experience comes with the gallon of milk. Customers are greeted on the farm, in the driveway, surrounded by the sights and smells of a family dairy. Milk comes directly from the bulk tank to whatever container you provide (or you may purchase a container for $0.25). Visitors to the Henry farm will be overwhelmed by the sense that they’re standing at a location that is about to change everything.
That, friends, is what food should do.
August raw milk sales at Henry Farms of Knox LLC are from 4 to 6pm August 1 ,5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, 17, 20, 21, 24, 28, 29. Address 263 McGiffin Road Knox, PA 16232. For addtional information call Andrew at 8142214379 or email Jill at email@example.com