Got real milk?

Take a closer look at what goes into that caffè latte - despite all the marketing hype, milk is now one of the most processed of all modern foods. Supermarket fridges are crowded with a confusing choice of pasteurised, homogenised and ultra-heat-treated brands.

Homogenisation involves forcing pasteurised milk under high pressure through a small nozzle to split the fat globules in the milk into tiny particles, so the cream doesn't rise to the surface. The milk is whiter, keeps for longer, and is easier to digest than standard pasteurised milk. But I don't think it tastes as good. And there's an interesting debate about whether the smaller fat globules may be too readily absorbed into the digestive system.

Cream is naturally found in all cow's milk, but the quantity is influenced by the seasons and breed. For this reason, the fat content in "regular" milk is standardised. Then there's low-fat, reduced-fat and skim milk, lactose-free milk, milk fortified with vitamins and minerals, milk with added fish oils, milk with extra cream, and A2-type milk. If you want pure, unprocessed, unadulterated milk, forget it - unless you milk your own cow.

The production and sale of natural raw milk is a contentious issue. Most of the large milk processors claim that raw milk poses a public health risk, while small specialist producers and groups such as Slow Food assert the right to enjoy the sweet, creamy natural flavours and health benefits offered by unprocessed milk.

Pasteurisation involves the use of heat to destroy pathogenic microorganisms in raw milk, but the process also may also reduce milk's nutritional benefits and affect its texture and flavour. Pasteurisation laid the foundations of the modern cooperative dairy industry in Australia. It ensured milk of varying quality could be collected from many different farms across a large area and minimised the risk of a dangerous microorganism from just one bad batch contaminating the whole milk pool. National food standards require that all cow's milk sold in Australia be pasteurised and there are sound reasons to promote pasteurisation in mass-produced milk. The question is whether milk sourced from a single farm of healthy cows should be forced to adopt standards formulated for industrial processing. When raw milk is carefully handled under appropriate regulations there are good reasons for arguing it should not.

The good news is that demand is growing for organic and biodynamic milk that hasn't been homogenised. This is milk with a thick layer of cream on top the way nature intended - simply shake it to mix it in. The finest examples are produced by a growing number of biodynamic and certified organic family-run farm dairies. These taste rich and creamy compared with their more processed cousins. They don't travel well and are best enjoyed within a day or two of milking. Here are my regional favourites:

Victoria: Schulz organic full-cream
This creamy certified organic milk is collected from a single mixed herd grazing near Timboon in western Victoria. The rich texture and subtle pasture flavour are a reflection of the diverse herbage on the farm and the gentle pasteurisation techniques practised by farmer Simon Schulz.

Queensland: Barambah Organics full-cream
This certified organic milk is sourced from a large single herd of mixed breed cows grazing on the Dumaresq River pastures on the New South Wales-Queensland border. Topped with a thick crust of yellow cream, it has a sweet, slightly nutty flavour.

South Australia: Bd Farm Paris Creek biodynamic organic full-cream
This family-owned dairy collects fresh whole milk from half a dozen small biodynamic organic farms in the rolling Adelaide Hills throughout the year. Established by Helmut and Ulli Spranz in 1988, its success in promoting organic milk and yoghurt has ensured many of the small farms in the region are still viable today.

Tasmania: Elgaar Farm organic full-cream
This certified organic milk is collected from a small mixed herd of Jersey and Holstein-Friesian cows near Deloraine in northern Tasmania. Joe and Antonia Gretschmann insist on packing their farm milk in re-usable glass bottles. Why? Because it's ecologically sound and tastes better.

This article is from the November 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.


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