1st June heralds the start of summer and fresh new season produce. It means a real shift in cooking too. During the long hungry gap, skills and innovation are needed to make the limited ingredients inviting. What a relief to be able to pluck something fresh from the garden and revel in just its perfect freshness and newness with minimal effort. Much of what I serve during the summer barely warrants a recipe.
Of course, there is nowhere to hide with this sort of food. Everyone who grows their own knows the incomparable flavour that comes, for example, from freshly dug potatoes compared to any you can buy. But not everyone has the space to grow their own food; and finding sources where you can buy freshly harvested produce can be just as challenging.
If you have very limited space, my top food growing priority would be herbs, even if it is just a few pots on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential seasoning; and the fresh growth immediately transforms a dish into a taste of summer. I have featured a different herb each month for those who want to grow their own.
My next priority for growing your own food in a limited space would be salad leaves. You can grow a mix of cut and come again leaves in a pot, but if you have room for a cold frame, you could become self-sufficient in salad for the whole year. Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding, the expert in no-dig gardening, is a fantastic book that will teach you all you need to know to achieve that self-sufficiently. Charles himself quickly realised that the only horticulture from which he could make a living from a small plot was salad leaves. He began by picking and delivering bags of fresh leaves to local restaurants.
Salad leaves are quick to grow and so some of the first of the new year’s planting to be ready for harvest. Radishes are similarly early to harvest, but despite their name, Spring Onions are a little later, and this year, a bit later than usual. Mine are just about ready to begin picking now (mid-June).
A food writer in our local paper alerted me to the fact that “Spring” onions are now sold in supermarkets all year round. The UK’s main commercial grower is in Worcestershire and can apparently supply them from March to November, but I noted that this week, in June, those in Waitrose came from Egypt. The switch in supply may well be owing to the previously documented trouble with trafficking and child labour for spring onion picking in Worcestershire. The year-round supply is down to their use as an ingredient in Far-eastern cookery.
However, as a traditional British salad ingredient, I would say that freshness is essential and urge you to grow your own. Following this year’s late frosts, which are expected to become a more recurrent consequence of climate change, I intend to try planting a “winter hardy” version of the popular White Lisbon variety for overwintering this year in the hope of achieving an earlier supply.
Back in March, Bee Wilson wrote about spring onions in the Financial Times. She included some lovely simple recipes from an Edna Lewis of the USA, including the following:
Take the freshest spring onions and lettuce, wash, and then dress with sugar, vinegar, and salt. This, Edna Lewis says, is the taste of her childhood. I tried it, using the best white wine vinegar to dissolve a pinch each of salt and sugar, no oil, and it was indeed delicious. I didn’t mention to my husband that I was trying a different dressing but observed that when I offered him the last of the salad, he carefully tipped the bowl to get the remaining dressing – a result!
The taste of your childhood salads may not be one you are eager to recreate, but if you look back far enough into our history you will find that British salads do have a creditable heritage and there are no end of unusual ingredients that could be included as I wrote here. So, whether you are looking for a main course perfect for lunch, a side salad, or something to refresh the palate between courses, the inspiration will start with your own fresh produce.
Those of a certain vintage will remember when garlic was most definitely not British. To older generations it epitomised all that was wrong with foreign food. Now its place in British cooking is firmly established. A clove of crushed garlic is added as a seasoning to most recipes that begin with chopped onion. The Isle of Wight has become so synonymous with garlic that several varieties have been developed here, although it will grow pretty much throughout the UK. Traditionally, garlic planted on the shortest day of the year (December 21) should be ready to harvest on the longest day (June 21st) although planting can begin as early as October or indeed, provided you choose a variety specifically designed for planting in the spring, as late as March. June is when we look forward to fresh ‟wet” garlic, perfect for roasting whole.
As with any “seasoning” the correct amount is hugely personal, and individuals do vary in the way their bodies process garlic. The cause of the pungent smell is allicin, a sulphur containing molecule, which is released when the garlic cells are ruptured. These sulphur molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream and escape when we breathe, and through our perspiration. Getting rid of the smell on your hands after handling garlic is easy, the little stainless steel “soap” you can buy works because stainless steel binds the sulphur molecules. Getting rid of the smell after you have eaten garlic is somewhat more difficult. The common accompaniment to garlic is parsley and, when chewed raw, this does help, but sadly the only real answer is 24 hours of normal bodily functions to flush it out!
There is a considerable difference between garlic that is consumed raw and that which has been cooked although not as great a difference as I had thought and discovered whilst on holiday with friends. They had young children and we took it in turns to eat out or babysit. One evening I ate a delicious whole bulb of garlic, roasted, as an accompaniment to lamb. It tasted sweet and mild, and I suffered no unpleasant aftertaste. The following evening my friends chose the same dish and, when I complained about the smell the next day, they told me they were getting their own back!
Despite the disappointing discovery that if you aren’t experiencing any after affect from eating garlic it doesn’t mean that neither is anyone else, my own capacity to enjoy garlic is largely determined by whether it is eaten raw or cooked. Raw garlic does, for me, produce an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and an aftertaste that lingers throughout the next day. What might have been enjoyable at the time ceases to remain so. Elizabeth David, who is largely responsible for introducing the British to garlic in Mediterranean food as opposed to curries which had formed the bulk of their previous experience, notoriously blamed garlic presses for the unpleasant aftertaste. Writing in Tatler in 1986, she records her delight in finding that in John Tovey she had an ally on the subject. He regarded them as “utterly useless objects”. Elizabeth David wrote …‟I’d go further than that. I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic, their effect being precisely the reverse of what people who buy them believe will be the case. Squeezing the juice out of garlic doesn’t reduce its potency, it concentrates it and intensifies the smell. I have often wondered how it is that people who have used one of these diabolical instruments don’t notice this and forthwith throw the thing in the dustbin. Perhaps they do but won’t admit it.”
Both John Tovey and Elizabeth David agreed that the best method was to crush a peeled clove of garlic lightly with the back edge of a really heavy knife blade. It certainly saves the bother of cleaning the garlic press, although it is a good idea to reserve a board solely for crushing garlic to prevent transferring the taste of garlic to the next thing you chop, however carefully you have cleaned the board. I was given a tiny board for this purpose years ago and still use it to this day. I have to confess that I do also own a garlic press and, when used to add a single clove of garlic to the base of a casserole or other long-cooked dish, I can’t detect any over-powering taste. However, for any dish where the garlic is to be consumed raw, or lightly cooked, I do revert to my board and knife blade. I also purchased this beautiful looking pottery garlic spiral:
It was made by the wonderful potter John Leach and I couldn’t resist it. However, it does involve using your fingers to rub the cut clove around the spiral (smelly) and then you have to transfer the paste to the dish you are making and wash the fiddly spiral, so I quickly reverted to the board and knife blade method.
A pestle and mortar can be used when you require a very fine paste, for example when making aioli, but make sure you have a smooth mortar not one of rough granite or it is a bugger to clean.
Whichever way you prepare your garlic, the fact remains that when eating it raw it is very pungent. When do we want to eat it raw? I gave the example of aioli above, but there are plenty more examples and several different approaches to ameliorating the harshness of raw garlic. One already mentioned is pairing it with plenty of raw parsley – the Italian Gremolata also includes grated lemon, another ingredient that help counteract the harshness. Sometimes it is appropriate to blanch the garlic briefly, this is what I do when making pesto. Likewise, when making Babaganoush, the garlic slices are roasted with the aubergine rather than added raw. The Southern American condiment of Chimichurri, which accompanies meats, especially steak, also includes plenty of chopped parsley and, it should be noted, is also left to infuse for several hours, like a marinade, which may in itself tame some of the rawness.
Then there is the Italian habit of bruising a clove of raw garlic by rubbing it over a slice of tasted bread. Even then the taste is quite pungent, which is fine if you want it to be the dominant flavour but less so if you are topping the toast with other ingredients, such as chopped tomato and basil. For this sort of thing I prefer to use garlic infused oil. You can make your own, although you need to remember to do so several hours in advance. Finely slice a peeled clove of garlic into a pan of olive oil and heat very gently. The garlic may be allowed to brown lightly before being left to infuse but on no account should it turn darker than this as burnt garlic has a very acrid flavour and is the reason why it is always added to onions in the final minute of their cooking rather than at the beginning.
I was given a bottle of Lunaio garlic infused olive oil and since that first bottle I can’t bear to be without it in my store cupboard. The infusion is done at ambient temperature over several days so that it doesn’t affect the quality of the cold-pressed olive oil. The flavour of garlic is quite intense although not harsh, so that often I can mix just a couple of tablespoonfuls with other olive oil. This is what I do with hummous and other dips. You can taste and adjust to the strength you desire. Ideal.
Black Garlic is a fairly recent ingredient in the UK, which can be used without fear of overdoing it. In fact, its lack of pungency means that you can eat whole cloves without fear. Black Garlic is aged until it becomes so sweet it has been likened to Balsamic vinegar. It doesn’t cook down like a normal clove of garlic so needs to be chopped quite finely to disperse it throughout a dish.
The fact that you can eat whole cloves of Black Garlic as a snack makes it an ideal way of enjoying the health benefits of garlic without the smell, although you can also buy odourless capsules if you want to take it for health. So, what are the health benefits? The list is varied and impressive, including curing warts, protecting against MRSA and food poisoning, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. It was first suggested to me whilst suffering from a stubborn chesty cough for its decongestant properties (which are similar to those found in any of the allium family). That is can also act as a decongestant for the blood by lowering cholesterol is, in my view, a better option than putting everyone over the age of 50 on statins. Of course, I am not qualified to comment on the use of garlic in health, but it may be something you want to explore further.
Yes, garlic certainly seems to be firmly embedded in today’s British food culture, albeit with a lighter hand than is used in other parts of the world.
This is my preferred proportions but feel free to adjust to your own taste. There is no one authentic recipe for Chimichurri.
2 large cloves of garlic
Teaspoon of coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
2 tbsps red wine vinegar
4 tbsps olive oil
Finely chop the garlic then sprinkle with sea salt and crush with the flattened blade of a large knife (or you could do this with a pestle and mortar). Transfer the garlic to a bowl containing the red wine vinegar and whisk in the olive oil. Stir in the freshly chopped herbs and leave to infuse for at least 2 hours before serving over grilled meat.
The start of Wimbledon this week makes it appropriate to talk strawberries even though the dreadful weather we are having this summer will make it harder than ever to find strawberries that really taste as they used to.
I live near Cheddar, once famed for its strawberries, and so have taken a considerable interest in this crop. Over the years I have carried out many informal tastings comparing varieties, growing methods and sites. The conclusions can best be summarised as this – real strawberries are a nightmare crop for commercial growers! If you have space to grow your own it is well worth doing so – they were one of my earliest gardening experiences and not at all difficult on a small scale. But will they have a place in the future of farming?
In the past strawberries could be very lucrative, but depended on a good fast route to market. Some of these ended along with Beeching’s cuts in railways but even without these another problem took hold – disease. Strawberries should not be grown in the same soil for more than 4 years, but when you have everything else in place – the perfect location for ripening plus a convenient distribution network, it was understandable that people were reluctant to call a halt to production until the soil could not sustain them any longer.
Pick-your-own then became the popular method of selling strawberries, and indeed some of these do still exist. If you can persuade the public to pick their own strawberries it gets around the problem of finding labour for this job. But somewhere along the line the public began to translate PYO as “please help yourself”. Not content just to sample a few berries to help decide which to pick, some even went as far as to drive off with a boot full that hadn’t been paid for.
It is now very rare to find strawberries grown in the ground. Nowadays they are usually grown in growbags at table top height, which both makes picking easier and also extends the growing season. These are also usually situated in polytunnels – protecting the strawberries from the elements but then requiring watering. These polytunnel “cities”, including caravans for pickers, are a blot on the landscape but it has been argued that they have some environmental benefit in that they require less chemical spraying than soil grown strawberries. From a taste point of view however, these forced strawberries have nothing like the depth of flavour that you get from the soil. The bags and plants are replaced annually – a huge expense in itself. One pick-your-own farm in my area switched to table top growing about a decade ago but tell me that next year they will be going back to growing in the soil because they are unlikely to cover the costs for next year’s grow bags from this year’s poor crop.
So is there anywhere that you can buy strawberries that taste as they once did? I have tasted some very good organic strawberries this year so it is still possible to find them if you can’t grow your own. Organic growing means that you won’t have the heavy pesticide residue found on mainstream commercial strawberries and they will have been grown in the soil on sound rotational principles. However, organic certification will not automatically guarantee you flavour – that will also depend on the variety grown, and the organic plants available do tend to be the same modern varieties that have been bred for commercial growing rather than the older more flavoursome varieties. It will also depend on the site on which they are grown – terroir is extremely evident in strawberries, which thrive best on south facing slopes with a slightly acidic, well draining soil. Ironically the pick-your-own mentioned above and The Community Farm where I tasted the organic strawberries are almost neighbours but the pick-your-own enjoys more of a southerly slope yet this advantage is lost when they do not grow in the soil. The grower at The Community Farm pointed out another important factor in flavour – the age of the plants. The flavour seems to develop the longer the plants are in the ground so that the four years old plants produce a notably more flavoursome strawberry than the two year olds. This of course is something that will also be lost in table-top growing where the plants are replaced annually along with the growing medium.
In addition to the influence on flavour that the growing site and method have my tastings have also revealed the following about varieties:
Older British varieties, e.g. Royal Sovereign, Cambridge Favourite, and Cambridge Late Pine, are from an era before commercial considerations such as shelf life and transportation became dominant in strawberry breeding programmes. Their texture is softer than modern varieties and I think this contributes greatly to the taste experience – as you squash them against the roof of your mouth the flavour floods over your tongue in a way not possible with modern “waxy” textured strawberries. For home gardeners looking for flavour rather than yield, these would be my preference.
Whilst it pains me to say it, you might also want to consider a French variety. Flavour has remained the prime consideration in their breeding programmes so that even commercially grown Gariguette strawberries from a supermarket have reasonable flavour. My favourite however is Mara des Bois, a perpetual fruiting variety giving you small quantities of fruit throughout the summer. It has been crossed with wild strawberries, so the fruit are smaller than modern commercial varieties but nowhere near as small, although with all the flavour of, the wild strawberry.
Of the modern British varieties only one has ever scored highly in tastings I have conducted – Honeoye. This stood head and shoulders above all other modern varieties, with a pleasing balance of sweetness and acidity, but I recommend it to you with some hesitation – it is not that easy to grow. In fact some pick-your-own farms had abandoned it either because of problems with disease or an unpleasant aftertaste that can occur if the soil doesn’t suit it. I have tried it in my own garden but it did not thrive here, nor give the exceptional flavour we had experienced in our tasting. But if you do seek out this variety, one final point to note is that it is not fully ripe until it is very dark red in colour, it almost looks over-ripe, which in itself could be a factor that led to it being abandoned at some pick-your-owns.
The future for strawberries
It sounds harsh to say so, but I am pleased that the failure of this year’s crop will lead to my nearest pick-your-own growing strawberries in the ground once again. And I think they would fit into the small mixed farms that the Campaign for Real Farming proposes as the model for farming in the future. Yes, they are a difficult crop in our climate, but as the seasonal luxury they once were, could be risked in a rotational cropping system, where the risk of a poor harvest in one crop in one year is spread across many different crops.
Recipes and Serving Suggestions
See here for my suggestions for serving the perfect strawberry.
If you’ve only got one herb in your garden I bet its Mint. Mint is so evocative of a British summer – essential with new potatoes, lamb, peas and Pimms! I almost wondered whether it was too obvious to feature, but decided it was worth it in case it helped you find another use for a herb you are already growing or perhaps a new variety to grow.
You will be aware, even if just from choosing toothpaste or chewing gum, that there are two main types – Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita). Spearmint, the one that nearly everyone has in their garden, in also known, of course, as Common Mint or Garden Mint.
Peppermint is the one from which the essential oils are extracted to make confectionery and is the one that earned England its reputation for producing the best mint in the world –as evidenced by the Italian, French and German names for it of Mentha d’Angleterre, Mentha Anglais and Englisheminze respectively. There is no record of peppermint being used before the English naturalist John Ray published a description of the plant in 1696. The medicinal qualities were quickly appreciated and from the 1750s up until the Second World War, when only essential crops could be grown, an area of south London specialised in growing Black Mitcham peppermint. Following the war it was completely lost to the UK and was only reintroduced, from Montana in the United States, in the mid 1990s. Sir Michael Colman, of mustard family fame, is the person responsible for its reintroduction and distilling on a commercial scale. The oil can now be bought from some food stores or on line at www.summerdownmint.com.
Whilst distilling the oil is not something you can do at home I now grow this variety for its heritage interest and find it makes a very effective digestive tea. A sorbet made with it works similarly well at the end of a meal. Peppermint is also the variety with the strongest medicinal qualities. In addition to being an aid to digestion (and incidentally, if you have hiccups just one good sniff of a mint tea can cure them) Peppermint also has strong antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-bacterial properties. I wouldn’t know quite how to prescribe it for these purposes, but these properties do make it a useful companion plant warding off all manner of pests from your plants. A peppermint tea is also recommended for nervous headaches and to increase concentration. If you are looking to buy Black Mitcham peppermint, make sure you buy it from a reliable source as now that interest has been revived there have been some incidents of other peppermints, hybrids imported mainly from China, being passed off as Black Mitcham. Here is one on-line source you can trust http://www.jekkas.com
The mint family is large but because it is a very invasive plant you probably won’t want to grow many of them. If however what you are growing is “common or garden mint” then you have some scope for improvement. By far my favourite variety of spearmint for general culinary use is Moroccan Mint, and it’s popularity is catching on judging by how much easier it is to buy now than when I first obtained it. It has a lovely clean flavour that holds throughout the season, as well as being better able to cope with drier conditions than our native spearmint. You can use it whenever you would usually use mint in British cuisine, but it also enables us to make the dishes we have come to love from its Middle Eastern homeland such as Moroccan style Mint Tea, Tabbouleh and a cucumber and yoghurt dip.
I’m not a great fan of mints-that-taste-of-something-else, although I recognise the novelty value and if you have a particular favourite mint combination amongst the following they might be worth growing: Chocolate mint, Pineapple Mint, Basil Mint, Apple Mint. In my opinion the best of these is the Apple Mint, perhaps because I do use apples quite a bit, but it does have a good, if subtle, flavour.
A quite different type of mint is Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii). I think the main attraction of this popular mint is its size i.e. tiny, and of course that is a consideration in many gardens. For its size it packs a powerful peppermint flavour and because it grows naturally in cracks of rock it is particularly suited to rock gardens or paths. It needs shade and a moist soil.
In considering whether you have room to grow mint you will need to remember its habit of spreading. For this reason mint is often grown in containers – I grow mine in an old tin bath, old sinks also seem to be popular mint containers. If you do contain the mint you will need to replace the soil every couple of years. Dig, or tip out, the contents of your container and then select just a few roots to replant in fresh soil. Corsican Mint does not set root runners, so if you want to increase the amount you have, dig up a section in spring and divide it by easing the plant gently apart.
Another consideration is the tendency of different varieties to hybridise, so if you are growing more than one variety they need to be planted well apart.
To keep mint bushing out rather than just shooting skywards, pinch out the top shoots when picking.
Cooking with Mint
Mint can be used both raw and briefly cooked. It is particularly good with green summer vegetables –e.g. asparagus, peas, broad beans and courgettes. Use it liberally. Click on the link below to see my recipe suggestions.
The plight of Britain’s dairy farmers was highlighted by the Nocton mega-dairy proposals, which painted a grim picture for the future of food production. Vigorous campaigning saw off the plans, a major victory for those of us who believe that small mixed farms are the way forward. However, as we have seen in the past with pig farming, the stated desires of consumers do not always come through in their buying choices.
Where does this leave the dairy industry now?
In 2002 there were 19,000 dairy farms in England and Wales but by 2010 this figure had reduced to 11,000. The average herd size increased from 75 to 113 over the same period, whilst the yield per cow had increased from 5,958 litres in 2000 to 7,096 litres in 2010.
If we go back even further, say to when I was a child 40 years ago, many more changes are evident. First and foremost, milk was delivered to the doorstep of nearly every home in the country. So important was milk considered for the health of the nation that free milk was drunk by every school child – actually the factor that led to me hating milk. As a suburban child we were already subjected to the pasteurised milk of Unigate dairies but it was a completely different story for the country dwelling boy who was later to become my husband. He was fortunate enough to be brought up on the unpasteurised milk of Jersey cows from a farm in his village.
Rather than give in to the pressures to produce more and more volume for pitiful return some farmers have turned back to producing a premium product for direct sale to consumers. It is a brave move, but when bankruptcy is often the only other alternative anyway, it seems worth giving it a shot. And how satisfying the job must have been for the farmer who once fed every child in the village and whose milk is so fondly remembered even today.
As usual education is crucial if small independent dairies are to be successful. For example, what is meant by a “premium product” and can consumers be convinced that it is not only worth paying more for, but will also remember to place their relevant order rather than just pick up milk whenever and wherever it is required?
What is premium milk?
The first factor in premium milk is usually breed – large scale dairying relies almost entirely on the large, bony, black and white Holstein – bred for yield but of a milk that has been described as “white water”. The favourite breeds for small dairies are usually one of the Channel Island cattle – Jersey or Guernsey, renowned for their rich creamy milk, but other traditional British dairy breeds include the Ayrshire, British Friesian, Shorthorn or even rarer old breeds such as the Old Gloucester.
Feed is equally essential to the quality of the milk and this means grass rather than cereal. Rich mixed pasture provides everything that is necessary for cows and they will even seek out plants to satisfy their medicinal requirements. But you need plenty of pasture to be able to move the cows around daily to keep it fresh and of the right length. Care is also needed to avoid plants that would taint the flavour of the milk. Winter feeding provides more of a challenge and it is important to check what your dairy uses at this time – hay or grass silage should be the mainstay. There is plenty of evidence that grass fed cows provide nutritionally richer milk.
The ace in the pack of small dairies is providing raw, i.e. unpasteurised, milk. This is still legal in England and Wales, although not Scotland, but carries a number of additional requirements. Not only does the milk have to be labelled with a health warning similar to that required for cigarettes, but the greatest restriction is that it can only be sold direct from the farm. This can include Farmers Markets or delivery rounds and even, as Hook and Son have now piloted, via mail-order.
Steve Hook, from Longley’s Farm in East Sussex, milks 74 British Friesian cows but even his organic certification was not enough to ensure financial viability. He estimates that he would have received just 15 pence per pint had he supplied a large dairy but he recognised the demand for raw milk and launched a national mail-order service in February 2010. Within nine months he had doubled his sales to 1400 pints per week at a price of between £1.54 and £2.31per pint (depending on quantity ordered) including delivery.
So what is it that makes raw milk so desirable? Probably the biggest factor is health, as pasteurisation destroys not only bad bacteria but also the beneficial bacteria, some of the vitamins and also important enzymes. If the price seems high consider what some people are prepared to pay for drinks containing plant sterols to reduce cholesterol or probiotic drinks, most of which contain only one strain so that you would need to drink a variety to have a balanced internal flora. All of these are contained in raw milk from cows that have fed on a varied pasture. Those who advocate raw milk are convinced that it builds a stronger immune system and that the risks are minimal – there is plenty of information about this already on the internet and I have listed some links below. However one point worth making here regarding the health benefits of raw milk is that they relate to the whole product, i.e. not only are they not destroyed by pasteurisation but they are also not removed by skimming. At a time when more semi-skimmed milk is sold than whole, this could be an issue but butterfat is an integral part of milk and, contrary to what people have been led to believe, it can actually help with weight control. Bear in mind also that as the milk is not homogenised the cream will rise to the top so that what is beneath is effectively semi-skimmed.
A significant proportion of those who buy raw milk are lactose intolerant. This might sound like the latest allergy fad but in fact it is perfectly normal. Humans are the only mammal capable of digesting milk sugar (lactose) as adults, and this ability is the result of evolutionary changes that have been taking place since man first domesticated animals for milk production. Lactase, the enzyme necessary to break down lactose in order for it to be digested, is present in the gut in all new born mammals but decreases until around the age of 2 or 3. Raw milk includes lactase but this is one of the enzymes destroyed by pasteurisation. Writing on this subject in On Food and Cooking Harold McGee notes…
Most Westerners, in particular those of northern European background, are capable of digesting lactose in adulthood. Their lactase levels, and those of a couple of nomadic African tribes, do not drop off as drastically as those of the rest of the world’s population…This is not to say that only a minority can eat dairy products. Most lactose-intolerant adults can consume about a pint of milk a day, which provides valuable amounts of several nutrients, without severe symptoms. (This is not true of those people who are allergic to milk proteins – Lactose intolerance is not an allergy). And cheese, yogurt and other cultured foods are practically free of lactose because the fermenting bacteria use it as a fuel.
This is certainly food for thought as far as I am concerned. Since babyhood I have never drunk milk, even in tea and coffee, although I enjoy cheese and yogurt. I put this down to my school days, when the smell was enough to make me feel sick, but presumably by not drinking milk my lactose tolerance would now also be impaired.
Raw Milk in the Kitchen
What I have noticed is the absence of that unpleasant smell in raw milk. This I now realise is owing to the presence of lactobactilli those same wild yeasts that I cultivate for bread making. The lactobacilli slowly (at least at refrigerator temperature) make lactic acid, producing a pleasantly tangy taste (and smell) whereas pasteurised milk actually goes bad. In cream the lactobactilli create Crème Fraiche, in milk the acidity will eventually result in the solid curds separating from the liquid whey. This naturally soured milk (sometimes called Clabbered) has been appreciated in many northern European cultures for centuries, only to disappear with pasteurisation. Cooks also took advantage of the acidity in baking – when mixed with an alkaline substance, usually baking soda, it creates carbon dioxide lightening the mixture. Most housewives kept sour milk for this purpose – in Britain Scones were the classic dish, but in Ireland the bread itself relied upon this reaction for leavening. Today cultured buttermilk can be bought, but it has had the culture artificially added to achieve this result.
Buying raw milk opens the door to a whole host of long forgotten cooking possibilities. Yorkshire Curd Tarts (the most famous of all the many versions of cheesecake that have traditionally been made in the UK since at least the 17th century) arose as a way of utilising sour milk. If you have made a cheesecake recently you will have realised how difficult it is to buy good quality curd or cream cheese. It is essentially a fresh cheese that needs immediate consumption, so to extend its shelf life it now has to contain high amounts of salt, even in the best of those available. I have put together a number of recipes that utilise the basic dairy skills that would once have been practised in every household, including ideas for using leftover whey. It should be noted however that heating milk, even adding it to hot tea or coffee, is akin to pasteurisation and whilst any milk dishes will be enhanced by using whole milk from traditional dairy breeds fed on grass, this holds true whether or not the milk is pasteurised. My recipes concentrate on raw milk.
It is by no means easy sailing for those farmers who do sell raw milk direct to consumers but what is on the one hand a restriction on the other is also a benefit. In my opinion the future of farming depends on farmers cutting out the middle man. Once you have established your customer base it is easy to sell the other products produced on a mixed farm.
Dreamers Farm in Somerset, who deliver their raw Jersey milk and cream to my door, is a small farm by any standards. They milk only 12 cows and even this has to be done in 6 separate stints in the tiny milking parlour they have built on their farm. However they also rear Hereford cattle for beef, Lleyn sheep, and a Gloucester Old Spot/Landrace cross for pork. Together with their free range eggs there is plenty of scope for cross-selling to the customer base they are establishing through their milk. At present they are delivering across a fairly wide area – I must be 25 miles away. But the milk and cream keep perfectly well in the fridge for the week between deliveries, after which I use any leftover for cooking. Ultimately it must of course be the aim for them to sell all of their produce much closer to home, and hopefully for me to find another farmer wishing to do something similar in my area. But in the meantime it seems to be working and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.