Yale, £17.99 Order for £16.19 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Milk: a local and global history, By Deborah Valenze

A study made of the white stuff

Blessed are the cheesemakers." Not far into Deborah Valenze's 3,000-year history, it is apparent that instinct long anticipated wisdom. The Ancients' appreciation of milk was, around the time of the Great War, dignified with, or reduced to, the term "vitamin A". Governments urged its merits, but all educational drives pall beside the case of Bernard of Clairvaux.

The Life of Brian gag was more astute than Monty Python realised. In the 12th century, the Virgin Mary came to Bernard, unveiling a breast and squeezing three drops of milk into his mouth. This became a familiar image, spectacularly so in Alonso Cano's painting, where she directs it from some distance. As Valenze observes of this "miraculous arc of milk", its "startling literalness evokes amusement from modern viewers, separated as we are by several hundred years from the unmediated physicality of the Middle Ages. Yet the legend and its image speak volumes about the powerful hold of sacred milk on the western European imagination".

Valenze is attuned to all the eras that she traverses, back to that of Isis in Egypt, "a stately seated figure, her breasts exposed". Though her husband Osiris also possessed a vital organ, Isis outlived him, making copies of his phallus "which she then distributed for use in worship".

Adept in theology, history, sociology and more, Valenze delights in cheese. Whether deliberating upon biology or the fact that gustatory preferences brought cows rather than goats upon our fields, she is equally incisive at summarising such calamities as the use of spent distillery grain for animal feed in 19th-century New York.

Industrialisation and malnourishment form a substantial section of the book, from which Elmer McCollum emerges a hero. Born in 1879 to Tennessee farmers, he grew up in poverty alleviated by poetry and was saved from scurvy by strawberries (vitamin C). At university, he eked out income by lab work, after instinct had told him a cow's eating was crucial to its udders. What was more, he appreciated the Wisconsin dictum "speak to a cow as you would to a lady". In 1912, after feeding rats with fats, he hit upon vitamin A (the word being a conflation of "vita" and "amine").

The tragedy is that, a century on, many now speak to a cow as they would a robot, filling supermarket shelves with products which would do Bernard of Clairvaux no good at all.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices