“Try some,” says Rosie Paul, taking a plastic bottle from the fridge and holding it up to the light. It looks different, certainly: butter-yellow, not chalk-white. The top quarter (or thereabouts) seems somehow more solid; that's a hell of a cream line. Rosie upends the bottle a couple of times, gently mixing the contents. And fills a glass.
The taste is spectacular. Smooth, silky, unctuous. Sweet almost, but not in the least rich, and with a body to it that's a world away from its anaemic processed cousin. If you drink it regularly, says Rosie, it tastes different every time: it changes with the season, with the weather, with what bit of the farm the cows are grazing, whether they've had a bit of clover or snaffled some wild garlic from the hedge. It's milk, but not as we know it.
Rosie and her husband Dave, a third-generation dairy farmer, have 180 Guernsey cows (the breed is important; more on that later) on 100 hectares in Somerset, south-west England. Some 75 per cent of their milk is bought by a dairy, where it will be pasteurised, and most likely homogenised. Mixed with milk from other farms, it is then forced through small holes to break up the fat globules and spread them evenly through the milk, preventing separation.
Demand is rising, says Dave: “At first it was the older generation, who remembered what real milk tasted like. Now it's younger people, interested in authentic, unprocessed foods. But you do need an urban customer base to make it viable.” Sales of raw milk are strictly regulated.
Despite huge advances in refrigeration and hygiene since we started pasteurising everything, raw milk still worries us. The U.K.'s Food Standards Authority says bluntly it may contain bacteria “such as salmonella and E coli that can cause illness.” In practice, says Dave, raw milk today is produced in clinically clean conditions, has no contact with the air, and is cooled to 4°C within five minutes. The risk is minimal.
Besides tasting better, raw milk's proponents argue it is more nutritious, higher in vitamins, healthy enzymes and “good” bacteria than pasteurised milk. Studies have shown it can significantly reduce allergies. Most also comes from small, grass-fed herds far less likely to suffer from infections and illness than factory cattle in industrial-scale dairies. In the case of traditional breeds such as Guernseys and Jerseys, it is probably also more digestible. This is relatively recent and still disputed science, but the commonest type of milk in Britain (bar the Channel Islands), the U.S., and much of Europe bar France is produced by black-and-white Friesian and Holstein cattle and contains a type of protein known as A1. Traditional breeds and cows in Africa and Asia tend to produce A2 milk, as do horses, goats, buffalo — and humans.
Hygiene aside, we have been sold the myth that milk is full of fat: a dairy industry delighted to sell its raw material twice (as “healthy” skimmed milk, and the skimmed-off cream) has somehow convinced us that whole milk is not good for us. Says Nick Barnard of a natural foods company, “It's less than four per cent. Milk is not a fatty product. It's been blended, homogenised, pasteurised, standardised, demonised. Milk looks and tastes the same wherever and whenever you buy it. Whereas it's a wonderful, richly differentiated, naturally nutritious foodstuff. It's a travesty.”
—© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011