I still remember the forearm strain of carrying four four-gallon jugs of milk in from the car when mum would get home from the supermarket. When we were little, we drank what Americans called ‘Vitamin D milk’, which was full cream. A bit older and we were moved along to ‘2%’, the equivalent of something like ‘Rev’ in Australia. When I started university, I switched to ‘skim milk’, or as we’d say here, ‘skinny milk’.
There was a short period in my adolescence when Dad insisted we drink a glass of raw goat’s milk every day to help boost our immunity against poison oak. We loathed it, and I reckon I contracted poison oak intentionally to demonstrate the futility of this daily torture before he gave up.
When I gave up skinny milk, I repudiated it with the scorn of a reformed smoker. Keep that thin blue liquid with the mouthfeel of vinegar away from me, thanks. Nowadays I like my milk raw, especially after a night in the fridge so that the first pour has globules of cream to tantalise the tongue as it dances through the skim milk underneath.
It’s illegal to sell raw milk in Australia. You can buy cigarettes, eggs from chickens that never knew a day outside a cage, and as much Coca Cola as you want, but not unpasteurised milk. I understand the health risks, just as I understand them about raw eggs and undercooked meat. But I won’t give up drinking raw milk any more than I’ll stop making mayonnaise and eating burgers made from freshly ground beef cooked so they’re still red in the middle.
What I don’t drink anymore is milk from the big processors, and goddess forbid someone should offer me private label milk from Coles or Woolies. According to Australian Dairy Farmers, some 30 dairy farmers have gone out of business in Queensland since January 2011, at least some due to the duopoly’s unscrupulous milk wars. I know who needs my business most, and it’s the independent dairies, preferably organic. And I’ll continue to defiantly drink raw milk when I can.
What about milk from rare and heritage breed dairy cattle? Where can I get some of that? Virtually nowhere, it seems. Thanks to Flavour Crusader, I know of Maleny Dairy in Queensland with Guernseys; and in addition to a Jersey herd, Mungalli Creek Dairy has Swiss Browns & Aussie Reds.
Holstein-Friesians produce 70% of Australian dairy, Jerseys another 10% of creamy goodness, and there’s a handful of Holstein/Jersey crosses around. If you want to try milk from Ayrshires or the critically endangered Australian Milking Zebu, I’m afraid you’re probably out of luck. Why? Because they don’t produce the quantity of milk as the Holstein-Friesians â€“ never mind quality. And if farmers are still getting 1992 prices per litre, no wonder their focus is on getting as much milk as they can from the herd.
We’ve been steadily losing diversity in our livestock just as we have in fruit and vegetables for the past century, in which the language of high yields, transportability and storability have prevailed over those of flavour and nutrient diversity. Ever seen a Green Zebra or Black Russian tomato in ColeWorths? No, just as you won’t find Wessex Saddleback pork or Ayrshire milk there either.
The Ayrshires may soon be gone from Australia. Gone because we aren’t drinking their milk. Soon we may not have the chance to drink actual milk at all, if we follow in the powdery footsteps of our European counterparts. The vast majority of milk consumption in the EU is UHT. It’s more shelf stable and transportable, and the processors and supermarkets have so-called ‘value added’ to the extent that they’ve won the battle to have the most convenient foods possible on their shelves. I hear they’ve been working on packaging that allows them to stack items directly onto the shelves (including UHT milk, which needs no refrigeration until after it’s opened) to reduce the need for human labour to unpack crates and boxes first.
Eventually perhaps we won’t even have the ubiquitous Holstein-Friesians, because surely it will be easier and more consistent to create dairy-free ‘dairy’ products. Then nobody will have to worry about how much and what variety of grasses the cows ate that affected their productivity and the flavour of the milk. And we won’t have to worry about drying cows off over winter in preparation for calving again in spring. Nobody will have to bring the cows in for milking at all.
If consumers keep choosing the most highly processed and altered forms of basic foodstuffs like milk at the cheapest prices, these facsimiles are what we’ll get in the end. Perhaps we deserve it if we can’t manage to vote with our dollars for the real thing.
A version of this post was originally written for the April 2012 edition of the newsletter of the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia.