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Milk: A local and global history


By Deborah Valenze
Published by Yale University Press
Website: www.yalebooks.co.uk
2011, 368pp, ISBN 978 0 30011 724 0 (Hb), £17.99

From Cleopatra bathing in asses' milk, Genghis Khan's Mongols sustained by mare's milk and goats and ewes being used for wet-nursing the infants of aristocrats in medieval Europe, it has been a long and varied journey to the widespread use of milk in modern times. Now almost a universal food, consumed either as liquid or transformed into one of as many as 450 dairy products - butter, ghee, cheese and yoghurt being the best known - milk has not always been looked on with favour. Indeed, in its long and intimate relationship with mankind, milk has often been considered either so rare as to be a food fit only for the gods, dangerous to health or consumed only by the bestial and depraved.

Deborah Valenze proves a knowledgeable guide on an intriguing journey of over 10,000 years. In Milk: A local and global history she investigates why cows' milk has come to be preferred to milk of other domesticated animals: "it has more versatility and wider palatability than others, also cows are more docile and ultimately more suited to large scale production." Yet what has made a seemingly bland animal product that is a mixture of protein, sugar and water, which enables it to support a wide range of microbes like few other food substances, so appealing? As well as tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid and diarrhoea can all be milk-borne.

The risk of disease from drinking milk has long been understood; nevertheless, its nutritional qualities were also realised early and 2,000 years ago farmers in England and Holland were manipulating the management of their cows to produce the winter milk which sold for three times the price of summer production. And it was in Holland that farmers realised the potential of doubling yields through better feeding. The attention to hygiene that would make milk so much safer to consumers was arguably first understood and promoted in North America, where dairying flourished following settlement by Europeans. The evolution of pasteurisation and sterilisation makes fascinating reading, hygiene responding to the need for milk in the fast growing cities and, within them, schools.

How milk production responded to demand by mechanising then robotising milking, and how electronic sensors enabled selective feeding in the US and Europe are contrasted with the development of the dairy industry in India, now the world's largest milk producer. Finland, however, is the most committed consumer with average consumption of 48 gallons (over 200 litres) per year. Iceland, Ireland and Sweden are close behind. This runs counter to a decline in milk consumption in most developed countries since the 1970s - the US, France and Italy consume only 12 gallons (50 litres) per person per year. However, consumption is increasing in China and Latin America, the Chinese having increased consumption fifteen fold in the last 40 years, a surprising trend in a country where milk has not been part of traditional diet.

So just how did an animal product that spoils easily, carries disease, and causes digestive trouble for many consumers become a near universal symbol of modern nutrition? Deborah Valenze provides comprehensive and engaging answers for specialists and generalists, policymakers and consumers.

Date published: January 2012


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Sounds historically revealing reading with contemporary stat... (posted by: IDI Mukhtar)


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