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On Food & Cooking Cloth Tsp #0001: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchenby Harold Mcgee
Milk and Dairy Products
THE NATURE OF MILK
The History of Dairying
What better subject for the first chapter than the food with which we all begin our lives? By our very biological nature as mammals (from the Latin mamma, meaning "breast"), we humans take mother's milk as our first food, and have done so from the beginning of our species, a million or more years ago. Less easy to ascertain is when we first drank the milk of other mammals with any regularity. This probably came well after the domestication of animals, which were first of all a source of meat and skins. The archaeological evidence suggests that sheep and goats were domesticated in Eurasia around 11,000 and 9,500 years ago respectively, at least a millennium before the larger, much less manageable cattle, which came under human control about 8,500 years ago. The smaller animals would have been much easier to milk, and were probably the first dairy animals. Rock drawings from the Sahara show that dairying was known by 4000 B.C., and what appear to be the remains of cheese have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2800 B.C. In any case, dairy products are a relatively recent addition to the human diet, roughly contemporaneous with such other innovations as bread, beer, and wine.
By the time that the Old Testament began to be set down, roughly 3,000 years ago, milk-and its products had become familiar enough to serve as metaphors or analogies for less immediate, more abstract conditions. The Promised Land is described over and over again as a land "flowing with milk and honey": a durable image of plenty. And in a sentence that suggests both creation and violence — the bringing forth of form and substance — Job asks God rhetorically, "Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?" The process of curdling seems to have been especially intriguing to those who pondered the transition from chaos to order. Aristotle used it in On the Generation of Animals to explain human conception.
The male provides the "form" and the "principle of the movement," the female provides the body, in other words the material. Compare the coagulation of milk. Here, milk is the body, and the fig-juice or rennet contains the principle which causes it to set.
A much more recent and wonderfully strange version of the cheese analogy of creation has been uncovered by the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg in the records of the Inquisition. According to his study, The Cheese and the Worms, a miller named Menocchio, from the town of Friuli, was put to death in 1599 for various heretical views, including this account of the making of earth and heaven:
I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed — just as cheese is made out of milk — and worms appeared in it, and these were angels. The most holy majesty declared that these should be God and the angels....
Still other analogies live on unnoticed in contemporary English. From the Greek for milk, gala, came galaxis, "milky way," the origin of our "galaxy." And from the Latin lac came lactuca, ancestor of our "lettuce" (which exudes a milky sap when cut from its roots).
Dairy products were important foods all over early Europe, though preferences varied from region to region. Neither fresh milk nor butter was very popular in Greece or Rome, while cheese was. The reverse was true of northern Europe and Asia. Milk and butter would have spoiled quickly in the Mediterranean climate, which offered the olive as an alternative source of oil. The Greeks and Romans commonly referred to the barbarians as "milk-drinkers" (Greek: galaktopotes), so remarkable did this habit seem to them. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described the Massagetai, inhabitants of the Caucasus, in this way: "They sow no crops but live on livestock and fish, which they get in abundance from the river Araxes; moreover, they are drinkers of milk." And 500 years later, the Roman Pliny said that butter was considered to be "the most delicate of foods among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large." He wondered at the fact that "the barbarous nations, who live on milk, do not know or disdain the value of cheese," but also noted that the cheeses most favored at Rome came from the provinces that are now parts of France and Switzerland. By Pliny's account, fresh milk was as much a cosmetic as a food, at least among the ruling classes.
Milk is valued for giving a part of its whiteness to the skin of women. Poppea, wife of Domitius Nero, took 500 nursing asses everywhere in her travelling party, and soaked herself completely in a bath of this milk, in the belief that it would make her skin more supple.
Over a thousand years later, another writer from the rim of the Mediterranean reported oh the strange uses to which northerners put milk. The Venetian Marco Polo traveled to, from, and in China between 1271 and 1295, and observed the nomadic Tartars as they prepared milk from their mares (horses being more mobile and versatile than cattle). The Tartar armies, wrote Polo,
Besides this precursor of powdered milk, the Tartars also enjoyed a dairy product "with the qualities and flavor of white wine." Not living the settled life that makes it possible to brew beer from grain or wine from grapes, they coupled the alcoholic fermentation of yeasts with milk to produce koumiss. A similar beverage has been made in the Balkans for many centuries; there it is called kefir.
Changes in the handling of milk came very slowly from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century. Milking, churning, and cheese making, all hard work, were done by hand, and, at least in England, done mostly by women. The word dairy was originally dey-ery, with dey meaning a woman servant in Middle English (in Old English, it meant "kneader," "maker of bread"; "lady" shares this root). In other European languages, the words equivalent to "dairy" have, appropriately, something to do with milk.
The making of cheese, yogurt, and other fermented products was largely uncontrolled, with microbes from the air or left over from the previous batch, whether desirable or not, colonizing the milk. Apparently none of these foods was known in North America until the arrival of the Europeans, and the first dairy herd was not established here until about 1625. While farmers may have enjoyed wholesome milk, city-dwellers generally saw only watered-down, adulterated, disease-carrying milk hauled in open containers through the streets (see Tobias Smollett's description on page 501). With the Industrial Revolution, of course, much changed. Railroads, steam power, and refrigeration made fresher milk available to a larger population. Milking machines and automatic churners appeared in the 1830s, specialized cheese factories in the 1850s, margarine in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, purified bacterial
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