Sometimes a good cheese looks like a Cronenbergian nightmare: Oozing, weeping or blooming with mold, these gobs of coagulated milk often smell like rot and feet. Yet there's an almost-ineffable allure to them—a richness and complexity of flavors that's enticed humans for millennia. Devoted connoisseurs clamor to get their hands on these funky cheeses.
If you're an American, this can be especially difficult. The U.S. has effectively banned not just many of the world's most bizarrely potent cheeses, but also a host of other seemingly benign and globally consumed varieties as well. Some think this means you have to travel far and wide to find a worthwhile cheese. If you really look, though, there are indeed ways to get clandestine queso right here in the States.
America's lacto-conservatism dates back to 1949, when the USFDA observed a typhoid outbreak in Canada linked to young cheeses made with unpasteurized (raw) milk. From then on, the U.S. banned the domestic production and eventually the importation of cheese made with raw milk that's been aged less than 60 days, believing these restrictions would eliminate most harmful pathogens.
In the 1990s, there was talk of banning raw-milk cheeses altogether when regulators realized some illnesses could survive past 60 days. (In truth, there were very few disease outbreaks in America traced to raw-milk cheeses, and only certain populations are at mild risk.) That hasn't happened yet, but for much of the past decade, the FDA has seemingly cracked down, expanding categories of banned cheeses and barriers on imports. In 2014, the FDA drastically lowered its threshold for acceptable levels of bacteria in cheese, arguing that this was a metric for unsafe production—ignoring expert arguments about the excessiveness and even potential harm of these restrictions.
No one's quite sure why the FDA has such a hard-on for cheese regulation. Some think it's a cover for low-burn agricultural trade disputes, while others think it's sheer squeamishness. Less conspiratorial individuals believe the recent crackdown, which may not be felt equally in every jurisdiction, is just part of a larger reevaluation of priorities within the agency, hitting artisanal cheeses hard because they lack the powerful defensive lobby other foods have.
Groups like the Oldways Cheese Coalition, formed in 1999 in response to the floated ban on all raw-milk cheeses, have pushed back. Their argument (among other things) notes that most other nations permit such cheeses, ensuring safety by working with experts who've long made them without issue to establish best practices. The OCC also points out that overzealous restrictions hurt small producers in America needlessly.
Thanks to their efforts, the group hase indeed managed to halt overzealous bacteria count tests. Nonetheless, a host of the world's finest cheeses are still persona non grata here, including: Bleu de Gex, Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, Camembert de Normandie, casu marzu, crottin de Chavignol, Époisses, Fourme d'Ambert, (briefly) mimolette, Mont d'Or, Morbier, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Reblochon, Roquefort, St. Nectaire, tomme de Savoie, Vacherin and Valençay. Even traditionally made feta, mozzarella and some Parmesan fall under scrutiny today.
Sure, you can get pasteurized milk knockoffs of some of these cheeses, like Brie or Camembert, in America. But these "dead cheeses" lack the oomph of their raw and young cousins; they aren't the real deal by far. And some, by legal status, cannot be made with pasteurized dairy.
Yet just because young raw-milk cheeses are technically taboo in the U.S. doesn't mean they're impossible to find. Few people speak openly about this for fear of FDA ire, but there are several ways to get your hands on some oozy stink, including but not limited to the following:
Straight-up smuggling. The most intuitive way to procure a cheese you can't get here is to travel somewhere the cheese is legal and stuff some into your suitcase. Most people think of France, but not only is that expensive, storing certain cheeses in a suitcase for long periods of time can also make a benign product dangerous. Plus, airport customs can be tough. That's why David Asher, a vocal advocate of raw-milk cheeses, recommends a quick jaunt to Quebec, Canada,.
"Quebec has recently enacted regulations that permit the production and sale of raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days," Asher says. "A number of small producers are making excellent fresh raw cheeses including, my favorite, Le Pont Blanc, a Saint Marcellin-style cheese made by Au Gré des Champs, almost completely unknown in the USA but made just 35 miles from the U.S.-Canada border. Traveling to Quebec is considerably less expensive than flying to France, and you can fit a lot more raw-milk cheese in your car than you might be able to pack in a suitcase."
The internet, stupid. For those unable to travel or not so eager to bring an at-best legally gray item over the border, there are websites that will ship your cheese of choice. If this seems impractical, consider that smugglers have in the past shipped entire dinosaur skeletons into the U.S. with minimal incident (well, at first). That said, while ordering from a website seems easy, it reportedly can cost an arm and a leg. Also, keep in mind you never really know what you're getting.
A wink and a nudge. The same reporter who authored the above-linked guide to cheese-import websites noted in 2006 that you could often walk into a high-quality cheese shop and, by asking in the right way, find young raw-milk cheeses. You can apply the same technique in certain restaurants or at farmers' markets if you ask around inconspicuously. And there have been cases of organized clubs distributing legally dubious cheeses (and other goods) to regular clientele. Yet given the notorious bust of a major L.A. food club in 2012, regulatory zeal in some parts of the nation and the irregularity of availability, asking around can be a problematic route.
Make your own. According to Asher, perhaps the best and most reliable way to get a good young raw-milk cheese in the U.S. is to make your own. "If you can get access to raw milk in your locale—and nearly half the states allow raw milk sales to the public in some capacity—you can legally make your own raw-milk cheeses," Asher says. "[They're] actually surprisingly easy to make in my experience." Asher has even authored a heavy how-to book on the subject. Granted, you probably can't replicate the most complex traditional European cheeses at home, but given traditional respect for food sovereignty in America, this route is arguably totally legitimate. It's a little more questionable to find a cheese maker in your area who might have a few extra wheels and ask for a bit for yourself. But if you're not keen to curdle your own milk, this is a viable option as well.
All of that's to say if you really want to get your hands on a potent cheese in the U.S., you can—one way or another. As with any legally questionable activity, when you go down any of these routes, you take on a degree of risk. But many have faith that the gustatory gains far outweigh the potential consequences. Even if these cheeses are attainable, the hoops one has to go through to obtain something that in much of the world is safe to make and easy to acquire do seem egregious and absurd. Economically, these workarounds can lock entire groups of people out of a world of flavor. And that smells more rotten than most banned cheeses ever could.