20 Apr 2011

On and Off the Magic Milky Way (Part 1)

Here is a four-letter word that is so part of our lives that we almost forget it's there. Rest assured, that four-letter word is not offensive, it is pretty safe and friendly too, if not essential - to most of us. It is a basic food commodity, just like eggs, bread, 'tatties', pasta, rice, sugar, tea or coffee.

Sweet Paul's Strawberry Shake (Spring 2011): click image for recipe
It forms an essential part of the non-vegan diet, consumed in its simplest unadulterated form with the breakfast bowl of porridge, cornflakes or muesli. Yes, that four-letter word is milk. And once we start skimming beyond its surface, we start to discover the complexities of an otherwise easy-going life companion.

Milk is available not only in its liquid form (as whole i.e. full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed), or a thicker richer stickier form (as condensed or evaporated, a must for cheesecakes, banana banoffee pies, and generally to achieve creamier puddings), or in powdered form that is reconstituted by adding water. Milk is available either fresh (arguably the best, yet with a shorter shelf life and the necessity to keep it refrigerated at all times), or pasteurised/ UHT (Ultra-Heat Treated) for that guarantee of a longer shelf life (at least while the container remains unopened).

Sweetapolita's 'Inside-Out Neapolitan Layer Cake'
In certain countries like the UK, milk is still home-delivered early each morning by the milkman from the local dairy, a tradition and convenience now sadly losing its mojo, especially in towns and cities where the competition and market penetration from the supermarket chains has become fiercer than ever, and this despite the fact that milkmen have diversified their activities with the provision of other dairy products, fruit juices, eggs and even bread: breakfast ingredients par excellence delivered to your doorstep!

Milk comes in a glass or plastic bottle, in a brick, in a tin or - for those of us lucky enough to trace it back to the source, from the cow's udder. Although mind you, milk is not solely restricted to the cows. That would be disregarding other mammals, like the goat, and those which too breastfeed their youngs but whose milk is not channelled down the humain food chain for human consumption (cat milk anyone?). There are other types of milk out there which have opened up new horizons to our vegan friends: soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc.

The Design Observer Group, 'A Collection of Vintage Cheese Labels'
Back to our cow's milk, it is also available processed into dairy products: butter, spreads, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais, custard, cream (single, double, whipped, clotted), ice-creams and shakes, or used as a key-ingredient in a number of desserts, chocolate bars, sauces and savoury dishes (gratins, mashes), without forgetting our hot drink fixes in the form of cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, hot chocolates and café mochas which simply wouldn't be so without their milk addition... You got it, milk is everywhere and trying to avoid it altogether is no mean feat: just ask a vegan once they step out of the safety of their home in search of ingredients or an eaterie that caters for their needs...

With its high calcium content, milk is recognised as a nutritive and healthy option by nutritionists. The recommended milk intake assists children in their growth, it benefits adults too by assisting them in taking care of their teeth and bones, and is said to limit the effects of osteoporosis in later life. It is however fatty and those seeking to reduce a high cholesterol level will resort to the semi-skimmed or skimmed version, although moving to skinny lattes after years of indulgent full fat lattes might take a little while.

Source: Plan59
Nevertheless detractors claim that cow's milk is only directly beneficial to its calves as it is designed to feed them first and foremost, just like human breast milk is designed for human babies. We cannot argue on these laws of nature. However in Part 2, I will have the opportunity to touch on the ethics of dairy farming.

Oh, and one last 'detail', actually the detail that prompted me to write this article: milk may be purchased either as organic or standard (i.e. non-organic). Ten years ago sourcing organic milk across all four major UK supermarket chains (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda/ Walmart, Morrisons), upmarket food chains (M&S, Waitrose etc.) and down the high street grocers and delis, was no mean feat...  

Thankfully I was able to source organic British milk from my local Sainsbury's (Cheadle, Stockport) for most of the last decade (despite single brand exclusivity, with limited supplies at times, or stocks running out altogether, forcing me to switch to non-organic. The one organic milk brand that sticks to my mind throughout the last decade as a staple favourite on my shopping list was Moo (how quirky is that for a brand!). (to be continued)

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