Illegal Cheese

You know, it’s just not a party until somebody busts out the illegal substance. That somebody can be you.

Sure, you could bring the host a fancy bottle of wine—a solid, if predictable, choice. Or a tin of homemade cookies—always appreciated. But if the time has come to establish yourself as a person of style, savvy, and semi-shadowy resources, then I’m here to tell you how to score illegal cheese.

Like any gift worth giving, illegal cheese takes some effort to procure. Over the past couple of years, it has become more difficult to find the kinds of young, unpasteurized, outlawed cheeses that make grown men weep. I’m speaking here of Camembert, Epoisses, Fourme d’Ambert, and the like. You can still find them, but you may have to spend some time searching. Luckily, that search can be a hedonist’s journey, in which wrong turns and detours often offer as much pleasure as the final destination.

Young raw-milk cheeses are illegal in the United States because they are swimming with bacteria that—theoretically, anyway—can make you sick or even kill you. Listeria is the primary offender, but health officials also fret about E. coli and salmonella. Of course, it’s these very bacteria—and the gooey conditions in which they thrive—that constitute the soul of transcendent cheese. “Cheese is a natural, living animal,” says Joe Manacusso, the cheese buyer for Citarella in New York City. “It shouldn’t be treated with heat and plastic the way it is in this country. That compromises the product. Yes, there is a small factor of contamination from raw-milk cheeses, but the French have been eating this way for hundreds of years without much consequence.”

Not long ago, an enterprising cheese junkie could stroll into just about any decent gourmet shop in America, establish a rapport with the cheesemonger, and risk listeria to her heart’s content. No need for whispered asides or prearranged signals; most retailers just weren’t worried about getting caught. But after decades of sporadic enforcement, the FDA has recently stepped up its efforts to block the importation of illegal cheeses and to harass retailers who openly flog the rules.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Huh? Just yesterday I bought a pound of Isigny Camembert at the Food Lion.” I’m sure you did. And I’m sure that the cheese was delightful. But I would bet you a wheel of Banon de Grand Mère that it had a red label (not the blue or white label that marks Isigny’s French version), which means it was aged for at least 60 days. Unpasteurized cheeses aged 60 days or longer are legal in this country because, the FDA contends, any potentially harmful bacteria will have died by then. U.S. cheese shops are full of unpasteurized cheeses aged for longer than 60 days—and lots of them are fantastic. Ditto for many of the artisanal pasteurized cheeses produced in the United States. (Pasteurized cheeses, wherever they’re made, have no age requirement.)

But Europeans prefer a 30-day aging period for their raw-milk cheeses, and those are illegal here. Really, though, how much difference could 30 days make? I’ve eaten young cheeses on trips to Europe, and yes, many were extraordinary. But to be honest, I question the objectivity of my palate while on vacation. Everything tastes like magic when you’re drunk and don’t have to work for 10 days. Would the cheeses be so good if consumed in neutral territory, sober, on a school night? That’s what I set out to discover.

My first stop was Citarella, where I found Manacusso and plenty of great cheeses, but none of the black-market stuff. I tried some other fancy shops in Manhattan. No go. I was getting discouraged.

So I turned to the Internet. Surely a French mail-order operation will send me the good stuff! I won’t specify which site I used, but let’s just say that its name is self-explanatory. I deliberately avoided the “shipments to U.S.” link (which redirects you to a mirror site set up for U.S. deliveries) and ordered three cheeses: a Camembert, a St. Nectaire, and an Epoisses de Bourgogne. Thirty-six hours later they arrived in excellent condition.

But was this the real deal? French producers make two versions of their raw-milk products, one for the United States and another for less squeamish markets. This site sells both. Even though I ordered from the French half of the site, did they note my New York address and send me the legal stuff? When I tasted the Camembert, I was almost certain I’d scored. It was stunning; the layers of flavor just kept unfolding. It tasted alive. But I needed confirmation. After a carefully worded email exchange with Jean-Claude in customer service, I received the message I was looking for: “Do not worry, Mr. Vaughan. You have received the cheeses you wanted.”

Excellent. But while mail order is fine in a pinch—the shipping costs almost as much as the cheese—I needed a walk-in source. Time for my trump card. I had yet to visit a certain cheese shop whose name I shall not divulge. But if you live in New York and are even remotely interested in cheese—and since you’ve read this far, I assume you are—you know the place.

The first thing I noticed was a little card sticking out of a wheel of something gooey: “Barely legal at 61 days!” A wink? I approached a saleswoman: “I’ve been tasting a lot of raw-milk cheeses lately, and many have been fantastic, but they’ve all, well, complied with U.S. rules and regs. Might you have anything a little more…special?” She didn’t hesitate, steering me first to a Brie de Meaux (“The label says ‘aged two months,’ but that’s just for the label”), then to an Azeitao from Portugal, then to a Pecorino Foja de Noce from Italy that wasn’t young but wasn’t legal, either (it was a new import that the FDA had yet to certify). This place wasn’t the least bit timid about the cheeses it sold—as long as you asked.

And that’s really the key to scoring illegal cheese. Develop a relationship with your source. Ask questions. Don’t act like you’re doing a drug deal. Don’t whisper. Oh, and don’t use the phrase “illegal cheese.” Ask for something “special” or “in the French style.” You won’t be disappointed. If you live in a town that lacks a cheesemonger willing to go to the trouble, there’s always the Internet, that go-to destination of dubious sources.

Of course, there’s a whole world of products that are wonderful and totally legal. Domestic artisanal cheeses have never been better. Maybe there’s a silver lining: Had we access to the young raw-milk cheeses, says Daphne Zepos of New York’s Artisanal Cheese Center, “we might never have even discovered some of the gorgeous cheeses out there.”

A Smuggler’s Sampler

Epoisses de Bourgogne (cow, France, $27 for 8.83 ounces, or 250 grams)
An insanely decadent, pungent cheese. The softer the better, so take it out of the fridge early.

St. Nectaire (cow, France, $27 for 8.83 ounces)
The most disappointing of the bunch. Very mild, not much backbone.

Pecorino Foja de Noce (sheep, Italy, $29 per pound)
Expensive and fabulous—very salty, with a chalky texture and a rich savory flavor. But I’ve had Pecorinos almost as good and much less expensive.

Azeitao (sheep, Portugal, $17 per pound)
An incredibly complex, tart, tangy cheese with a bright yellow rind.

Brie de Meaux (cow, France, $17 per pound)
I was definitely blown away. A super-gooey, super-earthy cheese not for the squeamish.

Camembert (cow, France, $27 for 8.83 ounces)
The cream of the crop, literally. A bona fide flavor bomb, and those layers of flavor just keep on coming. Complex, lively, slightly salty.