Are you a child of the 1960s? If so, you will probably remember advertising slogans such as:
“Drinka Pinta Milka Day”
“Cow and Gate, Farmer’s Wife, Double Devon Cream”?
In those days milk was clean, white, wholesome and nutritious. In the 1950s, the murky shadow of tuberculosis had been lifted by compulsory TB testing. We all subscribed to the ‘Milky’ way. In galactic terms, the lactic star was in the ascendant.
Its descent began in 1971 when the Milk-Snatcher stopped the third-of-a-pint-of-milk, handed out for free, every day, to junior school pupils. The same decade hosted a virulent attack on cholesterol; dairy products took their share of the blame for their role in cardio-vascular disease. In the eyes of doctors and nutritionists, milk had transitioned from good to bad. And then the Vegans landed! According to Defra, annual per capita consumption of cows’ milk in UK declined from 140 litres in 1974 to 70 litres in 2018.
Goat milk is said to be more benign. Tuberculosis and Brucellosis are not a problem. The fat content is a little less than the milk of dairy cows. The fats themselves are far less saturated, far less allergenic, far more digestible. Across the world, around 70% of animal milk consumed by humans is goat milk.
Today we are surrounded by an array of plant-based milks, for example almond and soy. While they may (or may not) be better for you than real milk, you should be aware of the pesticides that are poured onto them. All told, they are as disastrous for the environment as flatulent cows.
The good and bad, Jekyll and Hyde, aspects of milk are reflected in the popular adage: “as different as chalk and cheese”. Simon Winchester explains (in “The Map that Changed the World”) that there is a limestone layer in Southern England which descends at a slight angle as it moves from East to West. It is prominent in Dover where the chalky White Cliffs stand 350 feet above the ground; it drops to ground level in Dorset (which is why Lyme Regis is fossil heaven) and then disappears below the surface. Where the soil sits on the limestone it is alkali and the grazing is poor (but it grows good cabbages). This is the ‘chalk’. Further West, where the limestone is deeper below ground, the soil is more acid, the grass is lusher, conditions are perfect for dairy farming (think about Devon and its clotted cream). This is the ‘cheese’. There are places, for example in Wiltshire, where you can walk from one field to the next leaving the ‘chalk’ and entering the ‘cheese’.
Jewish literature and custom also highlights the contradictory characteristics of milk. Sometimes it is good, sometimes not. 15 times the Torah refers to the Promised Land, Canaan, as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The phrase suggests produce which is abundant, nutritious, sweet. Yet there is a darker side, where milk gets not such a good press.
The laws of kashrut which require us to separate meaty foods from dairy foods, derive from the thrice-stated “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”. The clear message is that eating a kid is acceptable, but milk is less than appropriate.
The patriarch Abraham was visited by three local heathens (only later did he discover they were angels). He prepared a meal for them, with milk and butter. For them, not for him. We are left wondering whether he was partial to dairy.
The book of Judges tells how Sisera, an enemy general, leaves the battlefield pursued by the Israelite army. He seeks refuge with a local Keinite woman, Yael, whom he believes to be friendly. He asks for a glass of water, she gives him milk. He drinks it, tiredness overtakes him and he falls asleep. She assassinates him, driving a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet. Here we have a non-Jewish woman who gives milk and butter to a non-Jewish soldier. We are left wondering whether any Jews were partial to dairy.
The Bible has no other narratives about the consumption of milk. However, there are many poetic allusions and most are positive. This one, from the Song of Songs, is typically colourful (any resemblance to recent goings-on at 10 Downing Street is purely coincidental).
“I am come into my garden, my sister, I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat friends; drink abundantly”
The general history of milk consumption throws up a surprise. Infants of all mammal species suck milk from their mothers. They have sufficient quantities of the enzyme, lactase, to break down lactose, the sugar which is found in milk. Young mammals stop producing lactase as they move out of infancy and towards adulthood. The same is true of most young humans.
It seems that a genetic mutation among Northern Europeans meant that people in those lands, if they continued to drink milk into adulthood, were able to go on producing the enzyme. Otherwise the process of converting milk into cheese breaks down the lactose and that is why cheese is digestible for adults where milk is mostly for infants. All of which might explain why our Middle-Eastern forebears didn’t ‘drinka pinta milka day’, or at all. They didn’t have the mutation. It may also explain why Sisera fell asleep, as his overworked digestive system tried to cope.
My personal dietary habit is lacto-vegetarianism: no meat, no fish, but dairy and eggs are acceptable. That said, I have a strong preference for our home produced, hand-milked, goat milk (most of which goes for cheese) and for our free range eggs.
One reason that we keep goats, but sold our cows, is because of the TB testing regime. When we first moved here, we bought two Dexter cows. They were TB tested on arrival and found to be clear. 4 years later they had to be re-tested. Lucy passed, but Beattie was a reactor. There was no TB for miles around (it spreads from the West; at the time it had reached the far side of Buckinghamshire but Bedfordshire was clear). There is a rural myth that badgers spread TB; but if that was right and one cow was infected, the other would be infected too. A far better explanation is that the testing technique is crude and rudimentary and throws up unacceptable levels of false positives.
The young vet was in tears as she served us with a notice requiring Beattie’s destruction. Agents of the State collected her a day later, and took her to an abattoir. The post mortem revealed no scarring on her lungs (no surprises there!); she was glatt kosher. The government paid us statutory compensation (about 4 times the amount she had cost us).
Whenever my kids ask me for money, I fall over myself to top up their bank accounts. I remind them of the Talmudic dictum: “More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to suckle”. More than they want to take my dosh, I want to give it to them! I never expected that HM Treasury would be so keen to suckle this taxpayer, but there’s another surprise.
I hope you have enjoyed this topic. I have tried to milk it for all it is worth!