Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A heated debate

A big glass of milk, fresh from the cow and with a thick layer of cream on top, was not a treat but an everyday occurrence when I was a child.

It's only now that I look back on my childhood days on a farm and realise how blessed we were: eggs laid by our own chooks, fresh milk from our dairy-farming neighbours, fruit and vegetables from our orchard and garden, meat from the livestock - I would be in heaven now if I still had access to this bounty (sadly, I don't, as the family farm was sold a decade ago).

When I was growing up, I didn't realise that drinking a glass of fresh milk, unhomogenised and unpasteurised, would become a heinous crime, according to the food police. The germs! The danger!

The vexed topic of milk was the subject of this week's cover story in Epicure, specifically why we seem to have lost the taste for real milk. I find it bizarre that a product as simple as milk has so many weird connotations, myths and beliefs surrounding it.

As author Richard Cornish explained, milk has been marketed over the past 20 years as "both healthy, because it is calcium rich, and harmful, because it is fatty". "Our relationship with the white stuff has now been reduced to grasping a colourful carton from a supermarket fridge where hundreds sit side by side. There is low-fat, lactose-free, milk with plant sterols, high calcium, high protein and milk with an added dollop of cream."

Aside from all our hang-ups about whether milk is healthy or fatty, the most contentious aspect is around raw milk, which is not homogenised or pasteurised. This is seen as evil and it is actually against the law to sell this milk. Richard explained in his article that raw milk is sold in some shops as "bath milk" and labelled not for human consumption.

This, to me, is an example of the weird and tangled relationship we have with food. At a farmers' market that Richard attended, he was warned "You can't drink it [raw milk] because Dairy Food Safety Victoria says that because it is not pasteurised it may contain listeria, E.coli, salmonella or staph."

Now, I'm not a scientist and perhaps things have changed over the past 20 years, but I drank fresh milk, now known by the unappealing moniker as "raw milk", every day for 18 years and never once was I sick from it, nor were any of our friends. Milk was milk and that was it. The one thing I hated when visiting my grandfather's house during school holidays (he lived five hours' drive from us) was that I had to drink milk from a carton, or what I called "shop milk". The homogenised, pasteurised milk had no flavour for me and I didn't like it at all. I much preferred our big billy at home, where the top half would often be cream, and we drove two kilometres up the road every couple of days to visit our neighbours and buy six litres for about $2. Life seemed much simpler then. When - and why - did food become so complicated?

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