Cheese 2009 – Not “Milk” But “Milks”

Why can consumers choose from hundreds of types of cheese or wine, but only one generic “milk”? The issues behind differences in milk quality were discussed at the Milk Workshop “From Milk to Milks,” held today at Cheese at 12 pm, which offered a new perspective on a supermarket product many of us take for granted, never thinking beyond the choice between skimmed and full fat.
The panel discussion was moderated by Roberto Rubino, a researcher with the Bella Institute for Livestock Research near Potenza, southern Italy. He began by saying that the parameters normally used to define milk quality – percentages of protein, fat, etc. – have nothing to do with real quality, which lies in the milk’s aromas and flavors. There is a big difference between the milk from a high-yielding cow raised in a shed and fed on corn silage, and milk from a cow with a low yield who grazes on many different grasses and herbs.
He insisted that we need to restore milk’s link to its place of origin, distinguishing between different milks, giving consumers the right to choose their own product and helping save small-scale producers from the ongoing milk crisis which has seen prices drop dramatically in recent years.
Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers in Ireland was in complete agreement. He talked about how not only geography, but also people and cultures can influence the quality of milk. He described the Burren on the west coast of Ireland, a limestone plateau with a 1,000-year-old grazing tradition. Less competitive flowers and herbs normally only found in Alpine areas can flourish in the closely cropped pastureland, and the limestone provides minerals. “The milk has fantastic potential,” he said, “but 99% is picked up by large trucks and transported 100 kilometers to be mixed with milk from other areas, pasteurized, homogenized, put in a carton and sold for 1 euro. It’s crazy.”
If only that milk could be sold locally, perhaps at slightly higher prices, it would support the local farmers, he said. While there are a few niche milks being sold on the Irish market – lullaby milk, from cows milked in the dark, said to help regulate the body’s sleep cycle; milk from Jersey cows; milk identified by its county of production – Sheridan said these were a tiny minority and that the current economic crisis was setting things back as consumers became more focused on price alone.
“In the past, there was only red, white and rosé wine,” said Aldo Grasselli, president of SIMEVEP, the Italian society for preventive veterinary medicine. “Now wines are distinguished by vine variety, territory of origin and so on.” However he said that the situation with milk was very complex, and that identifying, for example, the breed of cow would be a difficult process. “A Podolica grazing on high mountain pastures will produce very different milk from one grazing on the valley floor,” he said. “There is an enormous quantity of variables.” He also warned that increasing the diversity of milks could potentially increase food-safety risks, though he admitted that with standardized production “we lose a lot of good milk.”
“Good milk” is being used by Alfonso Burzio of the Agrigelateria San Pé in Piedmont to make high-quality ice cream. His farm also sells raw milk in the nearby city of Turin. He said that 90% of the world’s ice cream was made from powdered milk, but that consumers could really taste the difference in the Agrigelateria’s ice cream, made from milk from their own cows, milked in the morning and processed the same day. “Our fior di latte [flower of the milk] gelato really tastes of milk,” he said. “We don’t have to add any flavors like mass-produced ice creams.”
The panel discussion was followed by a lively question-and-answer session, with contributions from the international audience about the “milks” in their home countries and mentions of the Campaign for Real Milk in the United States, fractional cow ownership and the high-quality raw milk sold in some shops in Germany.

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