With Vague Laws And High Demand, There's A Reason Raw Milk Is Called Mooshine

Route 2 winds across the top of Massachusetts like a drunken Muppet on a bender. Twisting and turning its way around the Taconic Mountains, it occasionally straightens out for a mile or two as it runs through a small town or along a few farms before tangling its way back into tire-squealing curves that make your eyes go wide and your knuckles go white.

In those little towns, it's not uncommon to see hand painted signs advertising maple syrup; the highway is dotted with backyard sugar shacks, where local farmers cook down sap drained off the trees on their property. The maple signs are part of the background; for decades, they've been a fixture on the Mohawk Trail. Driving down the highway a few weeks ago, however, I saw something different — in addition to the standard homemade maple syrup sign, the Davenport Maple Farm was also advertising raw milk. I'd never tasted raw milk before, but I was about to.

But first, a little background. Raw milk is unpasteurized, which means that, unlike supermarket milk, it is not heated to kill bacteria. Pasteurization is intended to protect against food poisoning and disease, which were a big concern in the 1930's when milk accounted for one in four foodborne diseases. In most circumstances, it's still illegal to sell milk that has not been pasteurized.

In New York State, where I live, raw milk exists in a sort of semi-legal limbo, in which grocery stores aren't allowed to carry it, but dairy farms can legally sell the raw milk that they produce. In New York City, where there aren't all that many farms and a growing cadre of foodies is clamoring for the stuff, it is largely unavailable, a factor that has given it a certain cachet. Not surprisingly, milk clubs have cropped up throughout the city: basically, you worm your way in through your foodie friends, pay some shaggy guy a surprisingly large sum of money, and pick up your milk on a street corner. It's all very hush-hush and mysterious. The first rule of milk club, after all, is that we don't discuss milk club.

New York City isn't the only place that has developed a raw milk underground; just over a year ago, battles raged in California over raw milk, sometimes known as moo-shine, and raw milk rings have been discovered in cities across the country. In some ways, the raw milk/supermarket milk fight has come to represent the cutting edge of the locavore divide, pitting laws designed to protect the safety of consumers against local eaters who want their food in its purest possible form. Under heavy locavore pressure, it's not surprising that many localities — including California — have relaxed their restrictions on raw milk. Today, it's illegal in some places, completely legal in others, and somewhere in between in most. If you're wondering about the laws in your area, this map gives a good idea of the legal landscape — and of how far you'll have to travel to get raw milk.

While raw milk proponents cite a host of social, cultural and medical benefits, the ultimate trump card is flavor. Among a certain group of foodies, it has the kind of appeal that one usually associates with artisanal pork belly or, in some rare circumstances, marijuana. A good example is Emily Weinstein's comments on a New York Times food blog, in which she described her raw milk experience: "the milk — oh man, the milk! — was creamy and full of flavors, not white like supermarket milk, but yellow-tinged. It was milk with a taste that wasn't just defined by it texture — it was distinct, satisfying, delicious. All food should be like this, I thought, so natural it seems to redefine the word."

To paraphrase the lady in When Harry Met Sally, I'll have what she's having.

At the risk of sounding disappointed, I have to admit that my experience wasn't quite as transformative as Weinstein's. The skies didn't open up, the meaning of life wasn't made clear. The Davenports' milk wasn't so natural that it redefined the word or so flavorful that it made me rethink my place in the universe. In truth, it was just really good milk.

It was rich, with creaminess that suggested it was somewhere north of the 3.5-4% fat content that whole milk usually has. The color was a pleasing light yellow, just a shade away from egg nog. The flavor was stronger and richer than supermarket milk, with a hint of funky cheesiness that made it taste like someone had blended a bit of Camembert or a touch of chèvre into the mix. Unlike most milk, which seems to exist as a background for coffee or cereal, this milk had a flavor all its own.

And, as an added plus, there was the label, which firmly proclaimed "Raw milk is NOT PASTEURIZED. Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health." I gave up smoking years ago, but there's something about medical warnings on consumables that gets my heart beating a little faster.

My raw milk experience came with a bit of cost, namely some gut rumbling that gave me a couple of hours of mild discomfort. Raw milk advocates might suggest that this was the thunderous sound of my body shaking off the shackles of mainstream milk production or expelling the demons of industrialized dairy, but I'm pretty sure that it was actually a bit of indigestion, probably brought on by all that cream.

Before long, though, the rumbling ceased, and I used some of the milk to mix up a batch of ricotta. On some level, this was probably cheating: after all, stovetop cooking kills many of the mysterious, magical bacteria that make raw milk so special. On the other hand, this was a far cry from the heavy cooking that usually accompanies pasteurization, and the process of making cheese seemed to intensify the unique, rich flavor of the milk. For that matter, as I was eating a bowl of fresh ricotta drizzled with honey, I found that I really didn't care all that much about the semantics of raw milk consumption.

That was a few weeks ago; since then, I've taken a second trip out to get unpasteurized milk. Using FarmFresh.org I was able to find a more convenient outlet, the Cook Farm, where I bought a few gallons of milk and met the cows who produced it. While not quite as rich or flavorful as Davenport's milk, it was quite tasty and it made a great farmer's cheese. As a side note, it was interesting to note the ways that different areas, diets and breeds can produce different milk flavors. Looking at the Farm Fresh website, I realize that there are dozens of farms within a few hours drive of my home. I wonder what the milk at Foxfire Farm tastes like. And then there's Hawthorne Valley, Deerfield and Brush Hill and Baldwin Brook...

I think I see more ricotta in my future.