On a wet, misty day last week, I visited Upinngil Farm just north of downtown Gill. I was on a mission. After years of being preached to about the stuff, I wanted to try raw milk for myself and sample some of the cheeses made from the surprisingly rare commodity.
As much as I’ve always enjoyed high-quality dairy products, until recently, my understanding of exactly what I was consuming or how it was produced was primitive at best. All whole milk was equal, I assumed, and with the exception of cheddar, good cheese was imported and came in tiny, expensive portions from upper-crust supermarkets.
For years, I’d heard raw milk advocates explain the health benefits of milk that wasn’t pasteurized, but that had never been enough to motivate me to drive any distance to give it a try. It wasn’t until I interviewed Ashfield’s Ricki Carroll a couple weeks ago (see “All Hail the Cheese Queen“), that the cheese-making evangelist made it clear to me what I’d been missing.
Instead of blinding me with science, she put it to me simply: everything I liked about grocery store milk was significantly enhanced when it comes directly from the cow. And, she said, the flavor of the cheeses made from raw milk makes everything else taste second rate. If I was looking for premium local cheeses that would knock my socks off, I needed to visit places with livestock, not checkout lines.
In the 1950s, there were almost 5,000 dairy farms in Massachusetts. Now there are fewer than 190. Of those, only a handful sell raw milk. Laws vary from state to state, but in the Bay State, the stuff that’s not pasteurized can only be sold directly from the farm.
In the Valley, raw milk is available from farms in Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Greenfield, Hadley and Shelburne, but I decided on the farm in Gill because its website was the most inviting and rich with information. More importantly, it was the only farm that had an onsite store that offered the milk without a prior arrangement (though they do recommend if you’re traveling a distance to call ahead to make sure their refrigerator is stocked), and the only one that also sold its own cheese.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., the Upinngil Farm store is located in the breezeway between the old farmhouse and the barn, and while it was well-stocked when I arrived, there was no one attending the counter. In fact, during the half-hour or so that I browsed the shelves packed with locally made goods and read the ample literature pinned to the walls, I didn’t see another living soul that walked on two legs.
Behind the farm, though, in a verdant pasture that undulated into the glowing wet hills bursting with early spring color, I could see the farm’s Ayrshire cattle grazing.
From the fridge, I removed a half-gallon jug of milk, and hefty blocks of their cheddar, Gouda, and blue cheese. I added up the final price on an available calculator ($22), slipped a check into the metal box bolted to the wall, and hot-footed it home to sample my uncooked bounty.
Even before I tasted it, I could see this milk was different. It was tinged a slight shade of yellow (my wife thought it looked green), and when poured, it filled the glass thickly and clung to the sides more like cream. The raw milk also had a richer smell that reminded me of the farm I’d just left.
And when I took a gulp, the intense milk flavor swirled in my mouth and went down smoothly, filling me with surprise, delight, and a thirst for more. The difference between what I’d been used to and raw milk was akin to what separates the flavor of instant coffee from a double espresso. One tastes like a cheap, highly processed knock-off of the other.
The cheeses were all revelations, too, though the Gouda was my favorite by far. For years, one of my favorite cheeses has been old, old, crumbly Gouda imported from Holland. The older it is, the more intense the flavor. Other, younger, domestic Goudas have often seemed bland to me.
The Gouda from Gill has been aged at least 60 days (as is mandated by law), and it’s much softer than the Dutch cheeses I’ve admired. Still, the flavor is almost as rich—far more so than any other American variety I’ve tried—and it has a satisfying nutty aftertaste that is almost savory.
The chief objection raised to raw milk is its safety, and both sides of the debate recommend that small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems avoid it. Still, pasteurization is hardly a panacea. The process heats milk to near boiling, killing off potential pathogens that can cause disease, but the process, in addition to robbing milk of its flavor, reduces the vitamin and calcium content, and also kills microorganisms that aid in digestion.
Advocates for raw milk point out that the milk-related salmonella breakouts in recent decades have come from pasteurized milk from giant production facilities (not the raw stuff from small dairies), and the Upinngil Farm literature maintains that “Many of our customers have believed themselves lactose-intolerant for years—until they tried our milk!”
It would seem the issue is not about the benefits of raw milk (if in doubt, recall what most of us drank as newborns), but the health of the livestock and the cleanliness of the conditions under which the milk is produced. Given the steep decline in local dairies over the last half-century and the sharp increases in the size and market share of large milk production companies, one might suspect that the vigilance against the sale and consumption of raw milk might be more about protecting the health of big business than that of the consumer.
A sip of raw milk from Upinngil Farm will only reinforce this suspicion.