Growing up in communist Poland, I used to spent my summer holidays on my uncle’s farm in the countryside. Every morning, while my aunt would milk the cows with bare hands, I would wait beside with my cup ready to be filled up with fresh, warm milk — this had been a ritualised part of my mornings. Since then, political revolutions, economic transitions and technological change have marked the development of new lifestyles including our diet.
Milk, молоко, mleko, milch — these are words with Slavic roots with the meaning of: to spill, wet and moisten. The term “milk” is used in many different ways. For instance, have you ever heard about a milk bar? As an Australian or Polish citizen, quite probably yes. But surprisingly, it’s not a place where you can just buy a drink, or eat only dairy products. Not at all. The typical Australian milk bar was usually a local corner shop, selling among other things milkshakes, burgers and sweets. I was lucky to recently stumble across Bahr’s Chocolate and Milk Bar, which is run by a third generation in Hobart.
The first Polish milk bar, “Bar Mleczny” was set up in 1896 in Warsaw. Milk bars in Poland used to provide a quick and very cheap lunch especially for workers who didn’t have a canteen at their workplace. These milk bars typically served traditional Polish dishes such as dumplings, breaded pork cutlets, pancakes with a sweet cheese filling or potato pancakes. The home-cooked style meals were priced cheaply and it was rare to see an empty table at lunchtime.
What’s interesting is that we’re now seeing a resurgence of both the Polish and Australian milk bars; they’re somewhat experiencing a re-invention. With stylish new interior designs and brand new delicious menus, the milk bars are becoming a place to be. Daisy’s Milk Bar in Sydney’s Inner West is a great example.
One of the most symbolic of all foods, milk has held a central place in the traditions of many cultures. Among the Muslim populations for example, milk established kinship relatedness between a woman and a child, not just between one’s own mother, but between the family of the child whom was breastfed. The production of milk, as studied by anthropologist Greenfield (in his article ‘On the origins of milk and wool production in the Old World’), began in Central Asia during the Post-Neolithic period. Over time, genetic mutation enabled people to produce the enzyme, lactase, which allows us to eat dairy products, therefore allowing us to digest the lactose in the milk. World milk production stand at over 640 million tonnes per year, with India being the top milk producing country since 1997.
Today, people all over the world are diversifying new dairy products which are strongly shaped by climatic and environmental conditions, as well as cultural traditions.
Back in the day, on my uncle’s farm, women used to manually hand-make their own butter by using butter churns on fresh milk they extracted that day. This fresh creamy butter on a simple slice of bread, with a little pinch of salt, is a taste that still shines bright in my memory.
When I was traveling around Kazakhstan, a place where people used to live as nomads, it wasn’t uncommon to see dairy products sold out of the trunks of cars alongside the road or in parking lots.
In addition to milk, a fermented milk product called ‘kurt‘ was quite popular among locals. Made by compressing thick sour milk in a bag that was then pressed into dense white balls and left to dry in the shade, kurt could taste slightly bitter or salty. Kazakhs would serve these kurt balls along with their tea. Because of it’s consistency they could be stored for a longer period of time without any refrigeration, and so worked perfectly for a nomadic lifestyle.
Similarly, in Indian cuisine, a fresh unsalted soft cheese called “paneer” made by curdling heated milk with food acids like lemon or vinegar is used for example as a filling for dosas, an Indian pancake.
Dairy is also heavily used in Indian desserts, one of them, perhaps not the most popular one, but still a very delicious one is ‘rabi‘, which is a thickened sweetened milk with cream on top of it. In India it is sold as street food, freshly prepared and sold everywhere.
One of the most famous dairy-based desserts around the world however, would have to be the cheesecake — easily my most favourite from all cakes. Fortunately, the cheesecake’s popularity has spread far and wide and it is now enjoyed from almost anywhere in the world, in different tastes, shapes, and made out of different cheeses. A notable cheesecake I recently tried was this matcha green tea flavoured Japanese cheesecake.
While I can no longer have my milk directly from the cow, seeing as my uncle has sold all of his cows, milk is for many people worldwide the morning beverage of choice, and dairy products continue to feature in our daily diet in one way or another.
Daisy’s Milk Bar
340 Stanmore Road, Petersham, Sydney NSW
Masuya Japanese Seafood Restaurant
12-14 O’Connell St, Sydney NSW
470 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Sydney NSW
Bahr’s Chocolate Shop & Milk Bar
Hampden Road, Battery Point TAS