Our first food
Life begins with milk. It’s the first food we receive from our mothers and, for a while, the only thing we’re able to ingest. As we graduate from our mother’s breast, we turn to other sources of milk, most often cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s, for both flavour and nutrients, particularly calcium.
Cow’s milk is the standard, found in supermarkets in varying guises, including one called A2 that comes from a special breed of cow. The actual composition of milk changes with nature, though your standard cow’s milk is made up of mostly water, some fat, 2.7 per cent casein (a protein also found in human milk), lactose (essentially milk sugar), and small amounts of whey protein.
Heat and stir
In Australia, it is law that all milk be pasteurised (heated) before it can be sold. This process kills off potentially harmful bacteria that can lead to foodborne diseases, and extends shelf-life. Sadly, this also alters the structure and taste of raw milk, while destroying some of its good bacteria. The standard practice for pasteurising is to heat the milk to 72°C for 15 seconds. This can also happen at a lower heat for slightly longer, which does preserve certain enzymes and bacteria that help with flavour, particularly in cheese making.
Following pasteurisation, commercial milk is homogenised, whereby the milk is put through a centrifuge to break up the fat and evenly distribute it. Again, this extends the life of the milk, but, more importantly, on a commercial scale, allows producers to standardise the product, ensuring its consistency at any time of year.
What's all this talk about raw milk?
Commercialism has had a huge effect on farming, influencing how our food is produced and even what we eat. But when it comes to raw milk, the debate surrounding organic versus commercial practices is especially heated.
A cow's diet has plenty to do with how her milk tastes. The pasture, which changes with the seasons, will result in subtle nuances in flavour, which is the case with raw milk alone. In the commercial world, animals are fed an invariable diet of grains, which results in the only variety of milk most of us have known, ie the store-bought kind.
Australia, just like America and Canada, is bound by very strict guidelines regarding raw milk (see patseurisation/homogenisation above). This is worlds away from European laws that encourage the sale of raw milk and boast a long tradition of cheese making that frowns upon using anything but unpasteurised milk. There are ways around this, such as buying a cow or a share in one. Failing that, as I’ve said many times, befriend a farmer.
On your next trip to Europe, get your hands on an alpine cheese from the mountains of Italy's Lombardy – bitto del valle bitto is the one I'm thinking of. Its flavour, produced from untouched milk, is intense, rich and dry, with faint traces of grass you'll unlikely find elsewhere.
My milky picks
Growing up, I could drink litres of milk – on its own or with as much Milo as I could get away with. There was even a time when, come Saturday mornings, I would down a vanilla milkshake at the Adelaide Central Markets every week. As a chef, I have come to partner milk with savoury flavours; it has a natural affinity with herbs, such as bay leaves and thyme. It’s used to make a white sauce that’s the building block of so many classics, such as a creamy béchamel layer in lasagne or the start of a soufflé. And then there’s the classic Italian maiale al latte, pork cooked in milk, a simple dish which creates its own, almost-caramelised sauce. And let's not forget cream, butter, buttermilk, yogurt or cheese. Indeed, life sans milk would be a disaster.
Spring milk recipes
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.
Vintage milk bottles from Doug up on Bourke.