I remember sitting in Bologna University at the inaugural Slow Food Defence of Bio-diversity Awards in 2000 and being struck by the presentation of a group of nomadic women, I think from Algeria, who had to break down huge social barriers before being able to start selling the traditional cheese that they made from the milk from their herd of camels. Milk was deemed taboo - too much to do with reproduction and therefore sex to be willingly accepted as a business that respectable and respectful women should be part of, yet alone running. The women, of course, could see the benefit of creating an income from the constant supply of their camel's milk, making their way of life more financially secure. The cheese itself was delicious - I remember it as being akin to a ripe pressed goat's cheese.
Here in the UK - and in many other parts of the world - we have lost sight of the value of milk. I was a child when milk or water was the normal refreshment, with squash and fizzy drinks being only for special occasions. Mum said they had too much sugar in them and were treat foods. Milk was then full-fat and, of course, it was non-homogenised so the blue tits did take the cream from the tops of the bottles on the doorstep in the early hours. That really did happen! We kids loved milk. It was cold and refreshing but it also filled you up and it was protein and good for you. Energy-giving, we were outside whenever we could be and I am certain the milk we drank gave us the bottle to keep going. It was non-homogenised so the mouthfeel was more satisfying. The larger fat particles gave more flavour and research indicates that the size also prevented them being absorbed so readily making them more likely to be laid down as body fat. This is still being debated but it makes sense to me.
When I was studying home economics at college at the end of the '60's milk was still an important ingredient in family cookery. Marguerite Patten, the leading cookery writer of the time, wrote many milk recipes for books like 'Perfect Cooking', my first ever cookbook apart from college text books. The Dairy Book of Home Cooking is still a treasured possession amongst many of my age, full of good family recipes for every occasion.
So when did our relationship with milk go wrong? Of course supermarkets have been blamed time and again but we are the ones who have made them as successful as they are. Collectively we bought into the idea that semi-skimmed was best but at that stage we also seem to have stopped drinking milk as a food or refreshment. It simply doesn't taste very nice and I honestly believe that it is to do with the fat content. Blue top or whole milk is only 4% fat - that has to be hugely better for us than other drinks containing sugars or chemical sweeteners.
We went back to whole milk at home when we started buying most of our milk from a local farmer who bottles his own cow's production and sells through village shops. It is still homogenised but it tastes great. We recently changed doctors and I rather dreaded the results of the NHS welcome to your new practice blood tests. I imagined being asked "What do you do, Mrs Obese Person?" "Err, well, I am a cookery writer and whisky blogger." "So that would be why your tests show such a dire result!" I was sure that I would be put on a fat-free diet with skimmed milk only but not a bit of it. Our bloods showed a really good and well balanced diet. (You obviously can have too much of a good thing.)
Milk is a basic, simple and very valuable food in this over-complicated world. As with many simple things it has become devalued as 'more exciting' alternatives have become available. We have also lost sight of the countryside, how milk is produced and the value of farming to the economy. Food manufacturing seems of more importance than actually producing raw ingredients like milk and meat. We need to value milk more. We need to pay farmers enough for them to make a profit on their dairy herds. We need to drink more milk and cook with it more too. That's why World Milk Day is important. It is Open Farm Sunday on 5th June - why not see if a dairy farm near you is participating and find out more about milk.
Here are three of my favourite milk recipes. Just click on the picture to view, print or download the recipe.