A group of 12 prominent Sydney chefs including Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seiobo, Firedoor's Tony Gibson and Black Star Pastry founder Christopher Thé, are seated at a long table 47 levels above the city at O Bar and Dining. The Sydney skyline glimmers under a soft wash of rain as the guests exchange gossip and jokes.
In front of everyone is a glass of Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV. And next to that is a glass of milk. It's not just any milk. This is deer milk. The first deer milk to be produced commercially anywhere in the world, and it's the reason for today's gathering. It's not every day that an entirely new raw ingredient enters the world. "It's almost like finding a new colour or a new music note," says O Bar and Dining's owner Michael Moore as he swirls the tumbler of creamy, yellowish milk and brings it to his lips.
The first note, however, falls a bit flat. "It reminds me of when my kids were little and you'd mix up baby formula," he says. Everyone chuckles. He's not wrong. Due to the lack of fresh processing options available for the limited quantities of milk produced, Pamu, the NZ company making the product, sells it in powdered form. It's then reconstituted with water, giving it – at least at first – the grainy aftertaste of Eau d'Enfant detected by Moore.
However, as Pamu's business development manager Hamish Glendinning explains, the glass we're tasting is freshly-mixed deer milk. To allow the fats to properly emulsify and the graininess to dissolve, you have to let it sit, refrigerated, for at least eight hours. A second glass appears in front of the chefs, this one properly rested, and the group agrees that the milk has taken on a much more palatable smoothness and a clean, rich taste.
But all this resting and reconstituting goes some way to explaining why deer milk hasn't become a thing until now. Those steps are only part of the difficulty. The other is that deer – in Pamu's case we're talking about European red deer – aren't particularly easy to milk. Cows, which have been domesticated for around 10,000 years, will stand in a shed and let humans relieve them of their milk without much fuss, whereas deer, being flightier and less tamed, are more likely to kick or become otherwise alarmed.
There's also the matter of yield: dairy cows currently produce roughly 100 times the amount of milk as deer. And then there's the hardware. "Did you have to build an entirely new milking apparatus, considering deer are built differently to cows?" I ask Glendinning.
"That must have been expensive?"
"Oh, you have no idea," he says with a wince.
In theory humans could drink the milk of any mammal; if we had the patience and the inclination we could be putting whale milk, cat milk or bat milk on our supermarket shelves. But the most popular and viable milks are the same ones we've been drinking for millennia – cow, goat, camel and in a few geographical pockets, water buffalo (India and Italy), reindeer (Russia) and horse (Mongolia). Cow milk is not only the easiest to acquire, it's also the most versatile. It has a similar make-up to human breast milk so it's naturally palatable, and it easily separates into cream, which is essential for cheese-making. Goats also give a good yield – although not as good as cows – and that distinct "goaty" flavour makes covetable cheese. Camel milk is also growing in popularity. Not only is it considered particularly tasty, it contains high levels of vitamins A and C and low levels of lactose, which means it's suitable for many people who can't tolerate cow's milk.
There'll always be someone who'll try to expand our dairy diets. Several years ago US chef Edward Lee decided he wanted to milk pigs. It didn't end well. Not only do pigs have between 12 and 14 tiny nipples, as opposed to conveniently-graspable teats like cows, but they've also got a temper. "You get within 15 feet of a sow, she'll get up on her hind legs and get defensive," he told Modern Farmer at the time. "She might charge you. And once she charges you, just forget it." Nonetheless he eventually managed to extract a small amount of milk from one of his pigs after sneaking up on her while she was asleep. He made ricotta from the milk, which he claims was "delicious" but the experiment ended there. At this point the words "pig cheese" are – mercifully – yet to appear on any menus.
Deer milk, however, may be set for a brighter future. O Bar's executive chef Darren Templeman, who created the afternoon's tasting menu of deer-milk buns and deer-milk ricotta, venison with deer milk skin and a deer-milk gel, and a dessert that included deer-milk custard and ice-cream, says that while the product was fiddly to prepare, he was pleased with the results. They've already put an entrée using crisped deer milk skin on the menu. Black Star's Christopher Thé believes that there are possibilities to use the milk skin as a decoration for cakes, perhaps in a confection that worked with a broader "deer" theme.
Firedoor's sous-chef Tony Gibson added that while he thought the milk produced a beautiful, rich ice-cream and would likely take well to smoke, he still had reservations when it was cooked in other ways, and he'd need to put lot of time into testing it before he'd make up his mind. He also stressed that pure novelty wouldn't be enough to get it over the line. "We won't put it on our menu just because it's deer milk," he says. "It has to work as well or better than milks we already have."