Jun 012017

World Milk Day is a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to recognize the importance of milk in global nutrition as part of a balanced diet.  At the outset, I’ll express my reservations on two counts.  First, I’ve never been a milk drinker. When I was a schoolboy, free milk was delivered to my school every morning, ⅓ pint per student per day, but it was delivered early in the morning and sat in the warm South Australian outdoors all morning until we got it at recess around 10 am. So, it had often soured by that time and made me sick just to look at it, after I drank one when I was about 6. Put me off drinking milk for life.  Second, meat and dairy production worldwide is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas, methane. Therefore, milk production is not an unalloyed blessing. On the other hand, dairy products in the diet are very important for the development of healthy teeth and bones, among other things, because of their calcium content. But they are also high in vitamins B2 and B12, as well as phosphorus. On the down side – by some people’s lights – the fat content of milk is a complex of saturated fats.  Well, yes, but those fats give us clotted cream, cheese, and butter. I limit my fat intake, and use monounsaturated fats as much as possible when I use fats in cooking. But I always have cheese, cream, and butter on hand. Overindulgence is not a good idea, but nor is total abstinence. In my humble (inexpert) opinion, forced abstinence may lead to unhealthy cravings leading to periodic binges. Moderation works.

World Milk Day, whose acronym – WMD – is a bit ominous, has been observed on June 1 each year since 2001. World Milk Day was first designated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2001 and June 1 was chosen as the date because many countries were already celebrating a milk day around that time of year. The Day provides an opportunity to focus attention on milk and to publicize activities connected with milk and the dairy industry. In 2016, World Milk Day was celebrated in over 40 countries. Activities included marathons and family runs, milking demonstrations and farm visits, school-based activities, concerts, conferences and seminars, competitions and a range of events focusing on promoting the value of milk and illustrating the important role played by the dairy industry in the national economy. Celebrations will happen again on June 1, 2017 with a special campaign carried out by the dairy sector “Raise a Glass” and a campaign hashtag: #WorldMilkDay.

I’m going to branch out a bit, because when people, especially Westerners, think of “milk” they think of cow’s milk. But all mammals (including humans), by definition, produce milk which, in turn, can be drunk straight or made into a host of dairy products, many of which I’ve touted on this blog already. In Italy you can get goat’s milk in most supermarkets, and goat cheese is ubiquitous. Let’s start with horse milk.

Kumis is a drink originating among the peoples of the Central Asian steppes, of Huno-Bulgar, Turkic, and Mongol origin: Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Yakuts. Kumis is made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare’s milk over the course of hours or days, often while stirring or churning. During the fermentation, lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk, and yeasts turn it into a carbonated and mildly alcoholic drink. Traditionally, this fermentation took place in horse-hide containers, which might be left on the top of a yurt and turned over on occasion, or strapped to a saddle and joggled around over the course of a day’s riding. Today, a wooden vat or plastic barrel is usually used in place of the leather container.

In some cities in northern and western China folklore has it that at one time a skin, partially filled with mares’ milk, was hung at the door of each home during the season for making fermented milk beverages, and passersby, familiar with the practice, gave each such skin a good punch as they walk by, agitating the contents so they would turn into kumis rather than coagulate and spoil. In modern controlled production, the initial fermentation takes two to five hours at a temperature of around 27 °C (81 °F); this may be followed by a cooler aging period.

The finished product contains between 0.7 and 2.5% alcohol, which is comparable to the small beer of medieval Europe. Kumis can, however, be strengthened through freeze distillation, a technique Central Asian nomads are reported to have employed. It can also be distilled into the spirit known as araka or arkhi.

Then there’s mursik, a traditional fermented milk drink of the Kalenjin people of Kenya. It can be made from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk and is fermented in a specially made calabash gourd. The milk gourds are pre-treated with the smoke and charcoal of certain species of trees prior to each use. Fresh/raw milk (or, more commonly in modern times, milk that has been first boiled then cooled to ambient temperature) is poured into the specially prepared gourd. The gourd is then capped and placed in a cool dry place to undergo spontaneous fermentation for at least three to five days, through the action of lactic acid bacteria, yeast and mould species. Traditionally in some communities, but very rarely in modern times, fresh blood tapped from a cow can be added to fresh milk before fermentation, or to already fermented milk.

Charcoal “osek”, formed from the smouldering embers of branches from the Ite or Itet tree (peanut butter cassia, scientifically known as Senna didymobotrya), is used as a milk preservative. The embers are smeared the inside of the cleaned gourd. The charcoal has various effects. It lines the inside of the gourd, reducing its porosity rendering it airtight. The smoke from the embers also has a preservative effect which prevents undesired bacterial multiplication that causes spoilage, while allowing natural souring. The charcoal smoke imparts a special flavor to the milk, and a bluish color which is considered of high aesthetic value. Having prepared the gourd, the milk is pasteurized by boiling. The pasteurized milk is left to cool before pouring into the gourd. Finally the gourd is corked to render it airtight, making it possible for the milk to be preserved for up to a month


There are various flavors of mursik, depending on how it is prepared and what quality of milk is used. Many tree species are considered suitable for the purpose of imparting the preservative and aromatic effect to milk.  Several trees are good for the purpose. One characteristic is common though: high tannin content in the bark of the tree concerned. The popular ones include sertwet (acacia) and Cheblayat (wattle tree). Cheblayat is by far the most commonly used, on account of nearly universal availability, although sertwet is preferred by the purists.

Mursik can be prepared from a full gourd of milk corked all at once. Another method of preparing it is by pouring in a pint every three days or so. The fermented milk provides the culture for the new milk, and seems to accelerate its ripening. After the gourd is full, it is corked for a while, to achieve a varied consistency of proper sour milk, and results in a clear, sharp (almost bitter in some cases) liquid in which white globules of butter float, shaken well. Another type is the fast fermenting, even type, which gives a white, porridge like consistency.

Finally there’s Leipäjuusto (bread cheese) or juustoleipä, a fresh cheese traditionally made by the Sámi of northern Finland from reindeer beestings, that is, rich milk from a female that has recently calved. Cow, and sometimes goat milk, is more commonly used nowadays. Commercially available versions are typically made from cow’s milk, and they lack some of the color and flavor because of the original which comes from Southern Ostrobothnia, Northern Finland and Kainuu.

The milk is curdled and set to form a round disk from two to three centimeters thick. After this, leipäjuusto is baked, grilled or flambéed to give it its distinctive brown or charred marks. In Ostrobothnia and Kainuu, leipäjuusto is called juustoleipä (lit. “cheese bread”). However, this varies as people have moved around, and both names are used while leipäjuusto is the more commonly known name for this cheese. Other dialects have various names (such as narskujuusto) that refer to the way that fresh leipäjuusto “squeaks” against the teeth when bitten.

Traditionally, leipäjuusto was dried and could then be stored for up to several years. For eating, the dry, almost rock hard cheese was heated on a fire which softened it and produced an especially appetizing aroma. Even today, the cheese may be dried by keeping it in a well ventilated place for a few days. It can be eaten warm or cold, plain, in slices, or covered with cloudberry jam or cream.