You never forget your first sip. Of raw milk that is, fresh from the cow, simply filtered, cooled and bottled.
No pasteurisation, homogenisation or standardisation, meaning it still contains the full complement of vitamins, minerals and natural digestive enzymes as well as providing the most lusciously creamy mouthful of pure dairy delight; rich, sweet and voluptuously full bodied.
For someone who was ambivalent about milk, the raw stuff was a revelation. And that revelation came courtesy of Stephen Hook, a fourth-generation Sussex dairy farmer, way back in 2011 at Selfridges, in London.
A manager of the store’s food hall had tried his raw milk at the Abergavenny Food Festival, fallen in love and, after a few meetings sorting out the legalities (the law stated that raw milk could ‘only be sold from the farm premises’), it agreed that Mr Hook could rent some floor space in Selfridges’ food hall, install his own raw-milk vending machine and sell direct to his customers.
And it was from that machine, after plugging my coin into the slot and filling up my own glass bottle, I took my first taste. The punters couldn’t get enough. ‘For 50 years, the pasteurising industry had been bedevilling the image of raw milk as a dangerous food,’ explains Mr Hook.
For someone who was ambivalent about milk, the raw stuff was a revelation
And it was from that machine, after plugging my coin into the slot and filling up my own glass bottle, I took my first taste. The punters couldn’t get enough
But then, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) demanded that the machine was removed from Selfridges because it was illegal. It wasn’t – as by renting the space, Mr Hook was selling from his premises.
Anyway, to cut an epic story short, thanks to circumstances beyond Mr Hook’s control (and involving an entirely unrelated issue), he withdrew the machine in March 2012, although Selfridges agreed the venture had been a great success and no laws had been broken.
However, the prejudice against raw milk goes back many years, a mixture of scare stories, misinformation and, once upon a time, some very legitimate fears, too.
‘The idea that raw milk is unsafe and poisonous is ingrained in the British psyche,’ says Jon Cook, who runs Dora’s Dairy in Wiltshire with his wife Sarah. ‘But there was a good reason for pasteurisation.
‘During the Industrial Revolution, when dairies moved into towns, the cows were fed brewery and bakery waste, not grass. And they became ill. And ill cows produce ill milk.’
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Add in hygiene standards that ranged from the poor to the non-existent, and pasteurisation became an essential and life-saving innovation. These days, though, English and Welsh raw-milk producers (the milk is still illegal in Scotland, for some unfathomable reason) operate to some of the highest hygiene standards in the world.
In 2014, once the FSA had visited Hook and Son (as well as Ellie’s Dairy in Kent), its officials were, in the words of Mr Hook, ‘incredibly impressed. And began to understand that farmers could produce raw milk safely, train staff, have food management systems in place, that they understood pathogen risks and mitigated those risks, and carried out independent testing to validate their raw-milk sales.’
Mr Cook points out that pasteurisation destroys goodness, adding: ‘Raw milk is a complete food, perfectly designed to grow a baby mammal for up to a year.’
His dairy herd is made up of a mix of Jerseys and alpine breeds, such as Fleckvieh and Brown Swiss.He says: ‘Your farming practices have to be very high and to make good food, you need low-stress systems. Whereas a commercial cow can produce up to 3,000 gallons of milk per year, we get only 440 to 660 gallons. But, once people have tasted it, there’s no going back.’.
By 2018, the demand for raw milk had grown five-fold and the number of licensed farmers went from 70 to 200. Now, with FSA support, there’s a Raw Milk Producers Association, which offers guidance to anyone new to the sector. As well as Hook and Son there is the Morwick Dairy, Northumberland, where Ben Howie started with an ice-cream parlour and then began selling raw milk in 2016.
He says: ‘It’s an intensely local product. All I can say is ‘give it a go’. Once tasted, you’ll be hooked.’
Rebecca Mayhew and her family have been farming in Norfolk since the 1940s and now produce raw milk from their Jersey herd.
As to the health benefits of raw milk, its supporters, of which there are many, claim it can lower your cholesterol, fight infection and offer an incredible source of protein, as well as help with eczema, asthma and many allergies. It’s even suitable for those with lactose intolerances.
I’ve spoken to many people who swear by its beneficial properties, but as Mr Hook points out, ‘the only real claims that pasteurised milk can legally make is it being a good source of calcium and possibly a good source of protein’. The problem is that there has been no serious research into raw milk’s benefits.
‘Why is raw milk such a mystery?’ Mr Hook asks. ‘Very simple. It’s not in the corporate food world’s interest for this knowledge to be out there.’
In the meantime, give raw milk a chance. Not only will you be supporting a dairy industry already on its knees, but you’ll be giving those taste buds an experience they’ll never forget. The fact that it may have other benefits simply makes raw milk taste all the more sweet.
A longer version of this article appeared in the June 14 annual sustainability issue edition of Country Life magazine.