This week in cheese, in honor of our garden month, we're exploring the backyard diet of the ruminants that make the cheese we love. What exactly does grass-fed mean? And if a product is made from grass-fed milk is it necessarily better?
Unfortunately, even though "grass-fed" has become as popular a buzzword as "organic" in recent years, the use of the term isn't highly regulated and doesn't dictate much of anything. We've found it thrown about as freely as ever, used as much as for a marketing tool as for an indication of quality.
If you're lucky enough to buy your cheese directly from the farmer or at a venerable retail shop that has close relationships with cheesemakers, know the questions to ask:
- How many hours per day is the herd out to graze? Grass-fed doesn't mean that herd is outside actively grazing. A farmer can use the term if the closest look his herd has had at an actual fresh blade of grass if from an overcrowded feed lot, where they're eating hay supplemented with a cocktail of grains, corn, and other additives.
- How often is the cow fed grass? Newborns are often let out to graze on pasture but are then later confined and restricted to a poor diet. Look out for a new term we've been hearing that refers more to meat than to cheese, "grass-finished," which means that the animal ate grass throughout the entirety of its life.
- Is the farm practicing organic? Just because the animal is grass-fed doesn't mean that they're not consuming industrial pesticides.
With all of this said, the milk from a truly pasture-raised, free roaming, grass-fed animal has a greater probability of expressing the unique idiosyncrasies of the land from which it came. If the cheese is made from raw milk, you'll likely pick up even more of the environmental variation throughout a season.
The time of year can often be to blame if a cheese tastes flat or innocuous. Find out how long the cheese was aged and rewind. Was there fresh grass or foliage during that month? Or perhaps the cheese was made in the winter from frozen milk.
Particularly with goat cheeses, you can pick up that "grassy" note in the spring, when goats graze on fresh, young, sweet grasses. In the fall, when animals start to graze on fall foliage, bark, and hay, cheeses can taste more rustic and earthy.
The best way to determine whether or not you think grass influences the cheese you eat is to know your product. But be sure to ask the questions that clue you into the lifestyle and diet of the animals from which the milk came. And taste, taste, taste!