Matters of taste: Cream of the crop

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurised. Demand is soaring
February 15, 2017

Fiona Provan is 52 years old. It’s taken her a long time to get where she wanted to be. “I’m a bit different!” she laughed. Provan grew up in Hertfordshire, the daughter of a vet. “Very James Herriot.” A pastoral childhood, but not bucolic. Her father was “a very bad tempered Scotsman, a scary man.” At school she was naughty and got locked in the closet. Depression first hit when she was a teenager. What to do with a girl with a large purple birthmark and no O levels? She told the careers officer she liked animals and was concerned about the environment. She ended up at the Cordon Bleu cooking school and took on a few restaurant jobs. She married young, to “my best friend really.” They moved to a Suffolk smallholding. Three kids. Several years. “Then I had my head turned.”

Divorce, bad relationships. “A terrible terrible time.” Provan scrabbled, moved from one rented cottage to another, on housing benefit, volunteering, doing odd jobs. “Always a bit out there, the eco warrior.” Campaigning against animal testing, the destruction of the rainforest, industrial agriculture that had destroyed the countryside. “Frustrated, tired of banging my head against a wall… I can’t do a meaningless job. I have to have a reason, a purpose.”

With a few thousand pounds left over from the divorce she bought a food van and sold burritos and fajitas at farmers’ markets and festivals. A friend lent her a few Red Poll cows, an old East Anglian breed. She had Bonnie, her “house cow” that she kept for milk. The food van was popular, the cows lifted her spirits. She created a Suffolk picnic pasty, “people went bonkers for it!” She sold homemade milkshakes.

“One day in 2009 a light bulb switched on. I was walking back from milking Bonnie. I had a bucket of milk in my hand, my boxer dog at my heels… I thought: maybe I can make money out of a few cows. Oh My God. Micro Dairy. I think it was the first time this term was ever uttered. Tears came into my eyes. I thought: I can’t believe it! I’ve got it!”

I met Fiona on New Year's Eve. Clear Suffolk skies, frosty winter fields. We waved off the horses and hounds of the Somerleyton Hunt and went for a walk. A sign on the road said “REAL MILK” and we followed the arrow down a track into a courtyard full of Red Jersey cows and calves. In a shed to one side a cow was being milked and there was Fiona, grinning. She encouraged us to meet the cows and we clicked through the gate. The cows turned their heads and trotted over to say hello. We patted and petted and the cows nuzzled and butted us back.

“That’s Tulip,” one of the milkmaids pointed to a handsome calf, “she loves being scratched.” Tulip stretched out her neck and batted her impossibly long eyelashes.

“You know I haven’t had a day of depression since I opened my dairy.” Fiona told me.

Walking back up the lane, we drank the milk straight from the bottle, creamy and delicious, whole, complex and satisfying.

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurised. Demand is soaring. When Fiona started her Calf at Foot Dairy six years ago there were only 100 producers of raw milk in the UK, now that number has doubled.

Pasteurisation—heating to 71 degrees centigrade—kills most bacteria in milk. When introduced in Britain and America in the 1920s, it stopped the transmission of tuberculosis via milk and became a cornerstone of public health. But homogenisation—a mechanical process to break up fat globules and suspend them in the milk—is simply a way for the dairy industry and supermarkets to turn out a standardised product with a longer shelf life. Most milk sold in Britain is homogenised, a tasteless bastardised emulsion.

Regulatory authorities remain leery of raw milk and caution against drinking it, especially children, pregnant women and old people. In December over 60 people became ill from campylobacter after drinking raw milk sold by a dairy in Cumbria (none were hospitalised). Provan says she is “hygiene paranoid” in her dairy. She keeps her cows “off the muck” with plenty of straw strewn in a mound in the yard, and sluices down their feet so they can’t kick up clots of dirt when they come in for milking. The udders are washed with hibiscrub, an antiseptic used in hospitals, and they do a “four squirt test,” tasting and checking the milk from each udder for clots that could be a sign of any irregularity. “If it doesn’t taste like ice cream it doesn’t get bottled.” The Food Standards Agency inspects her facilities twice a year and her milk is sent to the National Milk Lab to be tested every two weeks. She says that none of her customers have fallen ill, and “you’re more likely to get sick from bagged lettuce than raw milk,” but that, as with any food, there are no guarantees.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that non-homogenised milk is less likely to upset the lactose intolerant, and that non-pasteurised, raw milk has more nutrients, but official studies are inconclusive. For Provan, raw milk is a niche that allows her to sell her milk as premium product, (“It costs £3 a litre and is the most expensive in the country!”) and keep her herd in a humane and natural way. She is passionate that her cows suckle their calves until their natural weening time. “Otherwise you are drinking milk from a depressed grieving animal.” Male calves are slaughtered at eight months and she sells their veal on site. “It’s part of the cycle,” she said. “Although I’m a vegan in my heart.” She has about 35 cows, she likes to keep the older females around even if they can’t milk anymore, as matriarchs of the herd.

Last year the dairy made a profit for the first time. But the economics are tenuous. She is a tenant and has had to move her herd three times (one move was crowdfunded), she must pay rent and buy in hay and grass pellets which are “royally expensive.” She is happy, her cows are happy and make milk which makes other people happy.

“You can see it in their face when they taste it,” she said. “They go quiet and they look at you, almost hypnotised, misty eyed. And I say, ‘you were back there, weren’t you?’ And they nod and say, ‘I was a child again, sitting on the bailer with the milk churns.’ They can’t quite believe that a taste can take them somewhere.”