We are now at the Brocher Institute in Hermance, Switzerland.  Let me first say that this institute is an extraordinary combination of natural resources and tireless, dedicated staff.  I have no doubt that this place will soon earn the reputation that it deserves for supporting the science community.

If research is loosely defined as “what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing”, then the purpose of this trip is to do research on a variety of subjects, and one of those subjects is cheese.  I was familiar with two types of cheese when growing up: the kind that came in slices covered in cellophane and the kind that came in pressurized cans; moldy cheese was thrown out as soon as it was discovered.  When you come from beginnings like this, the universe of cheese that the French and Swiss inhabit is just too much to take in at once, and one coping strategy is to prematurely conclude that you have your arms around the whole range of experiences.  Soon after I got to know Melissa’s parents, Cress starting introducing me to some of his favorite cheeses, and what I once considered too pungent or weird I now crave but can rarely find at home (like Roquefort).  So when we came to Switzerland (keeping in mind that we are in the French part of the country) I felt confident that I could handle just about anything.  The Emmental and Gruyère we tried tasted like the champagne had already been added.  During one Raclette lunch I consumed more cheese than I ever have before in a single sitting.  The Appenzeller that the guide books described as “nauseating” was just as delicious, but even stronger.  However, tonight I tried a local cheese that was almost overpowering.  Rather than milk, this one smelled like the mud that the cow stands in.  Melissa described it as “hay that has already gone through a digestive system”.  At this point we have only been here for a quarter of our stay and it remains to be seen if this is an acquired taste, so we will try it again right before we leave.

Part of the reason for the differences in cheeses between here and the U.S. may be the type of milk and how it is processed.  One nearby grocer specifies for each cheese the animal the milk came from, whether it was raw or pasteurized and how long it was aged.  Those of you in the U.S. who have sought out raw (unpasteurized) milk or cheeses made from it know how seriously this issue is taken.  In an October 1, 2006 article in the Washington Post Magazine, Thomas Bartlett interviewed Ted Elkin, deputy director for the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (as an aside, I took a course in college called “Mental Hygiene” but I’ll save that for another entry).  Mr. Elkin compared the sale of raw milk to marijuana and heroin (?!?).  FDA employees consistently compare consuming raw milk to “playing Russian roulette with your health” (see FDA link on raw milk).  In most states it is against the law to sell raw milk.  It is also a federal crime to transport it across state lines with intent to sell it for human consumption.  No doubt these officials are motivated by their desire to prevent an outbreak of listeria or some other bacteria that thrives on unprocessed milk.  However, experiences in other countries suggest that raw milk is not as dangerous as it is made out to be by the FDA, and there are many people worldwide who argue strongly for the health benefits of milk straight from the farm.  Pregnant French women eat unrefrigerated cheese made from raw milk, followed by a wine chaser, yet still have lower infant mortality rates than we do in the U.S. (I am generalizing and exaggerating about this behavior but not about infant mortality – the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rates of any industrialized nation).  If I were to list the most important public health issues we face in the U.S., I doubt that raw milk would make it into the top 100.  Tobacco, for example, which has no known health benefits and an adverse reaction rate of 100%, is legal and readily available in many different carcinogenic forms.  If asked for another example I might mention how odd it is that you can legally ride a motorcycle in many states without a helmet, as long as you aren’t running an errand to buy unpasteurized milk.  I think I’ll do some more research on this and return to it before the end of our trip.

Those of you who are still reading at this point might wonder if this blog is getting too far afield of its original purpose, and I am starting to wonder that myself.  So I will close by saying that we are getting into a rhythm here at the Brocher Institute and Everett is a great traveler.  He is usually only upset when he hasn’t been fed, and in that sense he is a lot like his parents.

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