Cheese made with raw milk is unequivocal in taste. It's nothing like the hard, plastic-wrapped blocks you buy in the supermarket. A traditional but largely forgotten product, it's one that seems almost reckless to attempt to make a living from, given the trying nature of the dairy industry. And yet in Suffolk, producers are crafting cheese with unpasteurised milk.
Fen Farm Dairy, a family-run farm close to Suffolk's River Waveney, produces raw milk with their herd of French Montbéliarde cows. The dairy's Baron Bigod is Britain's only raw milk-made brie and it's everything you'd want it to be: creamy, smooth, a little nutty, and with a touch of acidity. I saw one man eat a large triangle of the stuff like it was ice cream.
Neighbouring cheesemaker Julie Cheyney turns Fen Farm Dairy's raw milk into her celebrated St. Jude cheese. With a tweaked aging and production process, hers has an entirely different flavour to the brie, but is still worthy of Cornetto-inspired devouring.
Despite how undeniably delicious these cheeses are, mention raw milk and alarm bells will still ring for many. Last year, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) held a consultation on the product, judging that farmers should only sell it privately from their land or send it through direct purchasing. The organisation states that there is an "inherent food safety risk associated with drinking raw milk because germs normally killed by pasteurisation may be present."
The stigma surrounding raw milk is just another dampener on the dairy industry as a whole. Supermarket pricing wars have forced many farmers to sell their product for less per litre than bottled water.
It was this price volatility that caused Jonathan Crickmore, owner of Fen Farm Dairy, to turn to cheese production. His family has been producing milk on the dairy for generations, but it's only recently that he started churning it.
"If the global price of milk is down, it could mean the average UK dairy farmer will be losing money," Crickmore tells me, adding that farmers have had a "difficult year," with poor weather, struggling crops, and a continual battle with supermarket chiefs to levy a fair price. In comparison, specialist cheese is an attractive prospect for Crickmore and indeed for any of the UK's 10,000 dairy farmers who decide to change tack.
"By setting up the cheese and raw milk sales—and soon-to-be-raw butter—we have created a niche brand which isn't subject to the price volatility," he explains.
It's raw milk that Crickmore wants to bring to the fore. Unpasteurised and fresh, it's as thick and rich as any milk you're likely to drink with a chocolate chip cookie or pour on your morning muesli.
Despite the FSA's stance, Crickmore sees little danger in drinking raw milk. He says that since it began being pasteurised in the 1950s due to fears of TB, health and hygiene standards have improved. These days, he argues, the chance of getting ill from drinking raw milk is slim.
"The world, in some ways, has forgotten the qualities of milk being in a raw state," says Crickmore. "It's one of only two superfoods that you can survive on alone, with nothing else in your diet."
Pasteurisation can change the structure of lactose and according to some, destroy the good bacteria as well as the bad. Naturally, Crickmore says raw milk tastes "amazing."
"Think of when you over-boil your vegetables," he explains. "It's the same with milk."
Despite Crickmore's praise, it remains illegal to sell raw milk in supermarkets. In Suffolk, he and his fellow producers are fighting to see these restrictions lifted and unprocessed milk as the go-to option.
"I chose to come to Suffolk and use the milk from Fen Farm not only for the milk, but the ethos of the milk production," explains Cheyney, the cheesemaker behind St. Jude. "Fen Farm ticked boxes for me, such as the farmer producing his own raw milk cheese. Both the Crickmores and myself have very similar goals when it comes to cheesemaking."
Cheyney maintains that safety is paramount in raw milk production, but says she doesn't want to be a cheese maker using "clean" milk. She just wants "the best milk I can find."
Raw milk is just one way Suffolk's farmers are adapting to add value to their commodity. Another local producer Stephany Hardingham uses it to make her "fruit cream ice," so called because it doesn't contain the quantities of fruit, cream, and sugar used in most ice creams. Marybelle, a family dairy farm in East Anglia, now makes crème fraîche and yoghurts in addition to standard bottles of milk.
"The dairy industry is increasingly difficult for farmers, so we had to diversify," says Katherine Manning, the company's sales manager. "We've been in the business for a long time and you have to develop."
Whatever the government or supermarkets say about fairness, it's likely the dairy industry will continue to fall foul of pricing wars and consumer demand. Suffolk's raw milk revolution might be just what farmers need.