Edible histories: milk

Categories: History of food

Homer’s cyclops, tuberculosis and Flemish missionaries: a brief history of milk

Words: Mark Riddaway

“Britanni lacte e carne vivunt,” wrote Julius Caesar: Britons live on milk and meat. It’s an assessment that few of us could argue with even now, but it wasn’t meant kindly. To many Romans, the drinking of milk—in essence, suckling at the teat of another beast—was a sign of brutishness; a habit unsuited to men who wear fancy sandals and know how to conjugate their verbs.

The Ancient Greeks were similarly sniffy. Homer’s savage Cyclops was a big milk-lover, a clear sign of a lack of manners, while the historian Herodotus used the phrase “drinker of milk” as shorthand for the kind of semi-feral tribespeople found at the edges of the civilised world.

The Scythians, who lived around the Black Sea, were a prime example: “Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, to use them in preparing their milk,” he wrote, which if even vaguely true puts the dodgy behaviour of some of today’s industrial farms into perspective.

Musical pipes
“The plan they follow is to thrust tubes made of bone, not unlike our musical pipes, up the vulva of the mare, and then to blow into the tubes with their mouths, some milking while the others blow.”

With or without the aid of weird pipes, people have been milking cows, sheep, goats and mares for thousands of years. But the routine drinking of milk has been less prevalent than you might think, for good reasons: milk goes off very quickly when unfermented and unrefrigerated, and for most people in the world it is almost impossible to digest in its raw form due to once universal prevalence of lactose intolerance.

As cheese lasts far longer and contains much less lactose, cheesemaking has been the primary function of dairying since a quadruped mammal was first persuaded to stand still and have its teats squeezed.

Widespread and sophisticated
In Europe, where the ability to digest lactose evolved most rapidly, dairy farming grew ever more widespread and sophisticated. Where previously they had been restricted by the seasons, medieval farmers found increasingly ingenious ways of keeping their livestock lactating throughout the year. And yet the milk they produced was rarely drunk—that was what beer was for.

Derided by theologians, doctors and the upper classes, milk remained the preserve of the very young, the very old and the very poor, including the elderly widow in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “Her board was served most with white and black / Milk and brown bread, in which she found no lack.”

Raw milk was fairly widely used in medieval cooking—it was one of the main ingredients in frumenty, the great party dish—although in fancy kitchens it was often replaced with almond milk: expensive and time-consuming to prepare, but longer lasting and exempt from the religious strictures that limited the consumption of dairy products.

A Flemish missionary
The most notorious milk-drinkers of the Middle Ages were the Mongols, who were mad for the stuff. William of Rubruck, a Flemish missionary, described a culture in which milk was at the epicentre of culinary, religious and social life.

Women milked cows, men milked mares. They drank it by the gallon, offered it to the gods and used it as inspiration for their art. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis, was said by Rubruck to receive the milk of 3,000 mares as tribute every single day.

Most beloved of Mongols was a mildly alcoholic milk drink known as comos. “It is pungent on the tongue like râpé wine when drunk,” wrote Rubruck, “and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine.”

The Great Khan
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, an earlier visitor to the court of the Great Khan, resisted its appeal, insisting that he “would not drink mare’s milk at all” however keen his hosts were for him to try it. “We let them see that it was distasteful to us,” he wrote, nose aloft, “so they stopped pressing us.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that milk began to overcome the stigma attached to it and develop a justified reputation as a health drink. Its consumption became somewhat fashionable, especially in London: Samuel Pepys, who cared about such things, was constantly popping into the “whey house” on The Strand for a healthy draft.

One June day in 1666, he necked pints of the stuff in a bid to ward off heartburn after a boozy day out with his friends. It didn’t work out so well: “I was in mighty pain all night long of the winde griping of my belly and making of me shit often and vomit too, which is a thing not usual with me, but this I impute to the milke that I drank after so much beer.”

Dodgy kebab
This might sound like classic student logic (“It wasn’t all the vodka shots, it was the dodgy kebab”) but he may have had a point. The milk sold by London’s milkmaids and market traders—unrefrigerated, open to the elements, lugged into town from suburban farms—wasn’t always the most sanitary.

In his 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett writes of the milk sold in Covent Garden being “carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys”.

The only way of guaranteeing freshness was to drink your milk straight from the cow, an option available even to those in the centre of the city. According to The London Adviser and Guide, published in 1786, there were “cows that are driven into the streets, about the west end of the town, from which you may have your milk, see it milked, at four-pence a quart”.

Cheap calories
It was in the late 19th century that milk consumption really took off in the UK, helped by improvements in hygiene and transport and driven by demand for cheap calories among the rapidly-growing urban population.

In the 1860s, the proportion of British milk used for butter and cheese was around 70 per cent, by 1900 it was less than 30 per cent. Between 1860 and 1914, the volume of liquid milk sold each year quadrupled from 150 million gallons to 600 million.

The past century has, for better or worse, been all about the application of science. On the plus side, effective refrigeration has prolonged the life of a pint by several days, while the adoption of pasteurisation, despite its impact on flavour, did much to reduce the transmission of tuberculosis.

Subtle variations
On the downside, the almost universal use of homogenisation means that most of the milk consumed in this country today is bland and, well, homogenous, with subtle variations of breed, feed and environment pretty much obliterated.

Hook & Son at Borough Market provides a welcome source of raw organic milk: a true taste of the past, but with more rigorous hygiene. Herodotus would no doubt consider them brutes and accuse them of all kinds of atrocities, but one taste of that rich, silky liquid and even he might change his mind.