M is for Milk. It’s the first thing any of us ingest, and most of us have it every day in some form or another. It is part of what defines humans as mammals and is a multi-billion dollar industry. Britain alone produces 11 billion litres a year: enough to fill 4,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But we give little thought to the white stuff that is as much the basis of life as chlorophyll and plasma.
Milk has a history and mythology as rich as the creamiest latte. The Greek hero Hercules was a son of Zeus and mortal babe Alcmene. Zeus enjoyed his conception so much that, according to some versions of the myth, he carried on for ‘three times his normal length’. But Zeus had a jealous wife, Hera, who did not look kindly upon this latest instance of her rascally husband’s infidelity. She cast an unkind spell which, but for an accident, would have prevented Alcmene from giving birth at all. When Hercules was finally born, Alcmene – understandably terrified by this bullying – abandoned the baby on a desolate plain outside Thebes. Hera took a stroll down on earth to walk off some of her fury and came across the tiny, mewling Hercules.
Full of pity (and unaware that it was her rival’s child), she picked up the wailing creature and put him to her breast. A splash of milk that spilled during this encounter fell to the sky – apparently the Gods defy gravity – and formed the milky way.
But milk doesn’t have an entirely straightforward relationship with Greece. In fact, dairy went through a stage of being banned in Ancient Greek diets. It was considered too bestial and atavistic for the urban sophisticates: there was no place for savage milk in the debating hall or the lecture theatre of classical Athens.
The Bible and Koran, meanwhile, are full of adulatory references to milk. The former calls the Holy Land ‘a land of milk and honey’ (see also: Honey). Fasting at Ramadan traditionally ends with a glass of cool milk and a handful of sticky dates. And in Ancient Egypt milk was reserved for royalty and priests; Cleopatra famously bathed in asses’ milk. It took 700 donkeys to produce enough for her routine, but she may well have been on to something – modern cosmeceutical scientists have found that donkey milk can soothe eczema, psoriasis and acne.
After its period of unfashionability in Ancient Greece, milk made a comeback during the Renaissance. This period saw a renewed interest in the rural and bucolic. Farms – and their products – seemed to symbolise a simpler, purer time; not for nothing is the stereotype of the milk maid a synonym for gentleness and freshness. In metaphysical poetry the pastoral is equated with the untainted. One can imagine many a courtly love affair instigated by a lyre-playing, long-haired youth perched on a milk pail. Perhaps this is the point at which rolling in the hay become popular. Later, as industrialisation swept the European continent, Hardy harked back to cattle-ploughed fields and Constable painted haywains.
More recently, milk came into the spotlight with Momofuku’s ultra-fashionable milk bar in New York. Here, among gleaming counters and Manhattan hipsters, you can drink birthday cake-flavoured milkshakes or buy cereal-flavoured milk for $5. In the swanky British environs of Daylesford farm shop, meanwhile, ‘golden milk’ is yours for £4. And if you order it in the flagship Cotswold store you can gaze out at the verdant pastures, full of clover-rich grass, where the glossy herd of Daylesford cattle feed.
For the most part, alas, farming presents a rather less idyllic picture. Dairy farmers all over the world are going bankrupt as the large supermarket chains engage in ever shriller price-wars. It costs more to make a pint of milk than you can sell it for. In 2012 farmers took to the streets of Brussels for a two-day protest, spraying policemen and passers-by with milk and blocking traffic with their tractors. It’s a comic image but their plight is earnest. We pretentiously scoff ayuverdic energy balls and smugly talk about our biodynamic Christmas trees, yet allow our dairy farmers to be run out of their houses by buying cheap milk. We all want an English landscape where cows dot the fields; harness the milk of human kindness and buy organic.