Food and Drink: Bad enough from a cow, but from a mare . . .

IN MY more squeamish, younger days, when reading Russian literature, I would perforce stop, faintly nauseated, at passages where characters helped themselves to a cup of warm fermented mare's milk. That, like the skin that would form on a French cafe au lait if not served piping hot, seemed to me beyond the bounds of decency. Indeed, I have eschewed milk nearly all my life - the one exception being a not very prolonged fling, in adolescence, with milk drunk as an accompaniment to asparagus.

There are no doubt psychological explanations for this, and I recall with shame that when in childhood I wished to hurt my mother - a woman of great gullibility and an absolute Italianate belief in the perfection of her children - I would say that most of my maladies were a result of breast-feeding, going so far on several occasions as to tell her that I could well recall from those far-off days that her milk was sour. Make of that what you will, but no one can convince me that milk is not dodgy stuff.

That is why I am puzzled at the spread in our own culture of the very thing that makes milk unacceptable to me: its tendency to go off. People who put sour cream on their baked potatoes strike me as daft; so are all eaters of yoghurts, drinkers of buttermilk and so on. I can see the use (occasionally and in small quantities) for these products in otherwise overpowering dishes such as a borsch, but otherwise who likes things that are definitely 'off'?

My feeling about fermented mare's milk and other terrible concoctions of the Mongols and Tartars is, I think, historical. In two ways. First, in my formative years a string of tutors found it necessary to point out that with the invasion of the golden hordes, all civilisation came to an end. That to me meant that good cooking went, to be replaced by barbaric customs such as drinking sour milk.

Second was the fact that quite clearly as one grew up one should set aside childish things such as milk. 'Drink up your milk' seemed to me a command to remain infantile, and I rebelled.

Then, when evacuated to the United States, I found myself surrounded by a people who seemed to live on the stuff. Good grief] Grown men drank it with their lunches. The American fridge, that unheard-of marvel, would open up to reveal quarts and gallons of it. It was not until much later that I realised what a con the whole milk thing was. The US had been persuaded that milk was healthy, nay vital; being a natural product passed on to us directly from nursing cows (not sheep, goats or mares in the US), it was the source of the great American wholeness, of its good nature, its heartiness.

Well, I was against that, too, and I blamed milk for many of the equivalent defects of the American character: a tendency to blandness and to fat, an aversion to growing up entirely, a streak of gentle complacency. So when, decades later, milk took a few knocks (it was not all that good or nutritious, it was not strictly necessary even for young children), I celebrated.

Then the other day I was asked why certain cultures took to milk in a big way and others did not. Thinking about the matter, I came up with a first facile theory: that obviously one used the products to hand. For instance, milk is something of a rarity in Italy and not much favoured in France. Was this because Italians bred cattle for meat rather than milk? And then really only in the north? Mediterranean culture as a whole is not strongly pro-milk; northern cultures tend to be.

The availability theory did not entirely fit, for countries that did not much fancy milk did fancy cheese and consumed it in vast quantities and many varieties - while the US, where milk is idolised, has no cheese worth eating.

The obvious non-milk cuisines are Chinese and Japanese. Edward H Schafer points out, in his essay on T'ang food, that: 'We are accustomed to the idea that there is a line which divides eastern Asia into two cultural groups - one of which depends on milk and milk products (Indians, Tibetans and many Central Asian nomads), and one which rejects them with loathing. In the latter group we place the Chinese.'

Nicely put. Succinctly put. But even the Chinese adapted: primarily for religious reasons, the various stages of the decomposition of milk are regarded as analogous to the soul's progress towards perfection.

My spirit tells me that it would be ancient civilisations that gave up on milk in their childhood, but this is evidently not true. Anyone who has seen Indian street vendors frothing up their milk by tossing it in great arcs between two goblets knows that Indians are so dotty about the stuff that they even corrupt their tea with it.

Does the distinction lie between hot countries and cool? No, because both North Africa and the Middle East have strong milk traditions, while the sensible Eskimos have none. At this point I know you are expecting me to come up with an answer. I have none. I suspect the answer may be philosophical and draw on some line between what is purely natural, a base ingredient, and what is created, with art, an ingredient transformed. While I am in China, I hope to receive a nutritious correspondence on this score.

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments