In udder news

We take milk for granted yet it transformed human civilisations according to a fascinating new book

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Just half a century ago there were over 75,000 milkmen clinking bottles onto the UK’s doorsteps but these days fewer than 5,000 make the rounds. The story told by these figures is simply that we have changed our habits, buying most of our milk at shops and supermarkets rather than having it home-delivered.

But we are not losing our taste for milk. Sales have steadily increased and over the past decade alone UK cows milk purchases grew from 5 billion litres a year to 5.5 billion in 2017. We are also consuming increasing amounts of butter, cheese, yogurt and cream.

By the middle ages, cheese consumption was established throughout western civilisations

Yet high milk production is a comparatively recent phenomenon, says Mark Kurlansky, the author of a new book, Milk: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas. “Until the 19th century animal milk had always been dangerous and so it wasn’t used that much. People sort of knew that if milk wasn’t very fresh it would make them sick although they didn’t know why. In fact, to guard against this, early recipes which listed milk as an ingredient used to state that the first thing you did was go out to the barn and milk a cow.”

Kurlansky’s cultural, economic and culinary history of milk follows the model of his earlier bestselling books devoted to Cod and Salt, and begins by pinpointing the first evidence of animals ever being milked for food.

It was done more than 9,000 years ago by the Sumerians who flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq. But to begin with they milked goats and camels, says Kurklansky, because at that time cows were not kept as livestock. Within a couple of millennia, however, the Sumerians had clearly begun to rear cattle, as shown by a picture of a cow being milked which archaeologists found on a wall frieze at the temple of al-Ubaid in the ancient city of Ur.

As old as animal milking itself is the quest for ways to preserve it, especially important in hot climates. “Everywhere in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean people tackled the problem of using milk before it was turned sour by the heat, by turning it into milk products as soon as possible,” Kurlansky says. “The most common product they made was yogurt, although this is actually a modern word. The earliest yogurt makers called it mast.”

The conversion of milk into butter followed, with cheesemaking also soon widespread. The story of how cheese was discovered, as related in the book, attributes the find to nomads who travelled with milk stored in containers made from animal stomachs. When they found that the milk had turned solid they worked out that the agent responsible for curdling it was rennet, a set of enzymes in the stomachs of unweaned mammals. To this day rennet is still used to produce most cheeses.

By the middle ages, cheese and butter consumption was established throughout western civilisations. And they became vital stores on ships that carried explorers and navies, providing them with high calorific foods that would remain edible for months. Cheese in particular was one of the great foods of colonial navies, says Kurlansky. In the 16th century Holland issued each sailor with weekly rations. He quotes the British historian Simon Scharma’s calculation that a Dutch ship with a crew of 100 in 1636 would need among its provisions 450lb of cheese.

Preserving milk in liquid form took longer, however, and among Liverpool’s numerous claims to fame is the discovery that it was possible to keep milk in cans. In the 1840s the crew of a Swedish ship decided to seal milk in this way to give them a supply whilst at sea. After two voyages across the Atlantic to the West Indies a can that was several months old was opened on the Mersey and, it is said, remained “perfectly sweet and fresh”.

Earlier this year, MPs called for more milk and dairy products to be consumed

Preserving it in the form of cans of condensed milk and evaporated milk wasn’t perfected until the end of the century, but the invention that totally revolutionised consumption was the milk bottle. According to a legend quoted in the book A New Doctor, Henry Thatcher, came up with the idea in 1883 while standing in line with a pitcher to buy milk – the usual way it was sold – and saw a little girl drop a filthy rag doll into the vendor’s milk bucket. The doll was simply scooped out and the milk sold to customers, so a year later Dr Thatcher patented a milk bottle with a sealable lid. These so-called Thatcher bottles are now highly sought-after by collectors.

Two other developments made mass consumption of milk possible. One was the invention of the pasteurisation process, which heated milk to destroy bacteria. The other was the development of milking machines.

“This was really the key invention,” Kurlansky says. “It changed the whole dairy industry. In fact, it actually created the dairy industry. Until the late 19th century there weren’t any dairy farms. There were just farms that also had a few cows to supply some milk. Now they could have big herds. The problem was, there wasn’t really a market for all the milk they were now producing, which is how the industrialisation of cheesemaking came about. It was a way of using up all this extra milk.”

But the growing part played by dairy products in western diets has been dogged by controversy. High cholesterol from the increasing consumption of fat after the Second World War was blamed for an increase in heart disease. The industry answered this criticism by offering low-fat and skimmed milk products. One study claimed that milk caused osteoporosis, a disease that depletes bones, while others said that, actually, the calcium in milk was essential for bone building.

Earlier this year, UK MPs issued a report calling for more milk and dairy products to be consumed, arguing that it would tackle loss of muscle mass in old people and also help growth in children. However, many complain that low-fat milk is basically white water with no flavour.

Kurlansky says: “I have a brother who’s a heart surgeon and he sends me articles from medical journals about these things. I’ve come to realise that there’s not a lot of agreement about anything in medicine.”

But in China and Japan, where there was no history of consuming dairy products, their comparatively recent adoption has been blamed for some health problems. In Japan, the author says, they were very much healthier before they started eating western food.

In the US but not Britain – yet – genetically modified grain fed to dairy cows has become a huge controversy. So too the increasing use of herbicides on pastures grazed by herds. Everywhere, says Kurlansky, dairy farmers now have to offer something special like organic milk to make any money. Maximum prices suggested by governments are way too low, he believes.

“Milk should be much more expensive than it is. Farmers should make a profit from it but there’s this belief, now, that milk is a really basic commodity and should never be too expensive. Basically, what this means is that small scale farming is dying, to be replaced by huge industrial dairies, while the whole business of milking is being taken over by robots.

“This will surely open many more new debates on the relative merits or disadvantages of robot-made milk. History has shown that as civilisation develops, it creates more, not fewer, arguments about milk.”

Milk: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

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