In seeking to write about food and eating I thought it best to begin at the beginning; to start where we all start (gastronomically speaking); with milk.
As a new mum, and as someone who’s spent the last 10 years working with dairy, I’ve thought about milk a lot. Really, a lot.
It’s incredible that we can produce this complete foodstuff to nourish infants and equally astounding is mankind’s adaptation to not only consume the milk of other mammals but continue to draw nutrition from it into adulthood; plus the scientific innovations that make it possible for us to simulate this wonderful stuff to feed infants unable to feed from their mother.
The production of milk to feed the young is a defining trait of mammals and one which has helped mammals to become so successful. In developing a way of feeding the young outside of the mother allows for mammals to have a ‘childhood’ stage of development. Not needing to come into the world wholly ready to go means more of the energy in utero can go on brain size and complexity, and the finishing touches (teeth, eyesight, quills, fur, claws, etc.) can be completed after birth.
Aside from the proverbial ‘cat that got the cream‘, humans are unique in not only drinking milk from other mammals but continuing to drink it outside of infancy. The enzyme needed to digest milk – lactase – normally ceases to be produced in great quantities in the gut within the first year of life. This is to allow for the production of enzymes more useful for the digestion of solid food as the infant moves toward life away from its mother. It would seem that some kind of genetic mutation occurred in mans history that allowed for continued lactase production – these genes would have been passed on in tribes of humans moving northwards as this trait would have allowed them to flourish as they could feed their infants longer in increasingly difficult environments. This mutations success was compounded as animals were domesticated and could be used for a food that didn’t involve killing them. In other words, if your baby could be breastfed longer when there wasn’t much food to go around, they would have a better chance of surviving and having children of their own. Then, if your family could drink the milk of the sheep/ goats/ aurochs you had hanging around but everyone else had to kill theirs in order to eat, you’d probably be around to see the end of the ice age. This development can be seen in the percentage of lactose intolerance across different nationalities or ethnic groups
- 2% of Scandinavians are lactose intolerant
- 10% of French and Germans
- 60% of Southern Europeans and North Africans
- 70% of African Americans
In our more recent history, we have used to science to assist us in our quest to feed our babies. In spite of the current ‘breast is best’ campaigning, as someone who has struggled to feed 2 tongue-tied babies, watching their weight drop each week (whilst you’re told not to worry as stress effects your milk supply – hooray!), I am eternally grateful to the men and women who took it upon themselves to bring about the innovations that led to the tub of formula milk powder on my kitchen counter.
We have gone from giving a baby goat milk and hoping for the best, through the 19th century concoctions of cows’ milk, flour and potassium bicarbonate, to something as nutritionally close to human breast milk as possible. As someone who studies food labels meticulously (I don’t get out much) when it comes to feeding my family, I was never quite sure I was happy with giving my baby something with an ingredients list that took up most of the tub. It was having the chance to learn a little of what milk consists of during a cheese making lesson, that I realised that if I had to write out the ‘ingredients’ of milk in terms of proteins and sugars etc. then that too would be a pretty hefty list. In our understanding of the composition of both human breast milk and cows’ milk we have been able to add to the latter to replicate the former.
This amazing stuff, giving early mammals an evolutionary advantage and then helping Neolithic man survive an ice age or two, is certainly worth thinking about. It’s the first thing any of us consumed, and thanks to a lucky genetic hiccup we can continue to enjoy it (and all its delicious offshoots) into adulthood. I thought a lot about a recipe to include with this post as I use milk or milk products in so much cooking, but they all seemed too complicated or even deserving of a post of their own so I thought it best to leave milk as a drink. That’s something of a cop out even if good enough for Clockwork Orange’s Alex, or Jean Reno’s hitman Leon, so I decided to continue on the back to childhood theme and make strawberry milk.
175-200g sugar (depends on taste and how sweet your strawberries are)
1 litre milk (preferably whole milk) – this amount will vary according to how strong you like the strawberry flavour. We found it easiest to add the syrup to each glass to individual tastes.
Chop the strawberries and place in a pan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil and boil for around 10 minutes stirring from time to time until the strawberries start to fall apart and the syrup thickens. Strain through a sieve and cool. Once the syrup is cool add to milk. (Don’t do what I did and ask a 6 year to taste until you got the syrup to milk ratio right – ‘Not quite mummy, it still needs more syrup.’). We drank ours with Rice Krispie squares, this is not essential but rather nice.
EDIT: My old school friend Sumaya got in touch to say her attempt at the strawberry milk was vastly improved by the addition of lime juice. I completely agree – read about it on her blog mamanushka (http://mamanushka.com/srawberry-syrup/)
Many thanks to the wonderful Harold McGee and his ‘On Food and Cooking’ for some of the facts quoted here, also see the 1979 work by R. Jenness on the composition of breast milk (as I said, I don’t get out much). I adapted the recipe from thekitchn.com blog – try it, your kitchen will smell like Chewits. Oh, and the beautiful cows at the top belong to Johnny at Fen Farm Dairy.