Why Raw and Unpasteurised Milk is Back on the Menu
Pasteurisation, the argument runs, is all well and good – nobody’s clamouring for the return of salmonella, TB or E coli to the breakfast table – but the heating process which kills germs also changes the nature of the milk itself.
It’s still good for you, obviously, but raw milk proponents say that some of the vitamins and calcium become insoluble after pasteurisation, and thereby harder for your body to ingest. The raw food movement has crested this year, and the public at large are more suspicious of processed food, hence an upswing in interest in old-fashioned unpasteurised milk.
Aside from all that, it’s been a boost to dairy farms which had been in dire straits too. The protests of last year, when irate dairy farmers drove cows through supermarkets and emptied their shelves of milk to highlight the risible returns they were getting from big dairy companies, were an indicator of how far things had deteriorated.
‘We had a processing plant on site, and then we sold that milk to roundsmen and they delivered it onto the doorstep,’ says Jeremy Holmes of Delph House Farm in Denby Dale, near Huddersfield. He’s a third-generation dairy farmer whose father and grandfather moved to Denby Dale from Bradford in the 60s, and the old milk business had served them well.
‘But in the early 2000s, that was starting to decline; there was a lot of supermarket cheap milk, and people were cancelling doorstep deliveries,’ Jeremy says. Like a lot of farms, Delph House had to diversify; to use up their growing stock of unsold milk, they added an ice cream parlour, Yummy Yorkshire, which has been extremely successful, but to fundamentally change the core business his forebears had built up was still ‘a difficult decision’ at the time for Jeremy.
That’s not to say that all’s rosy for dairy farmers now: during this year’s ‘very, very difficult’ summer, the price of milk at the farm gate dropped as low as 15.6p per litre.
While things have picked up since – if you were wondering where to stick your cash in this uncertain post-Brexit, post-Trump world, sell all your gilt bonds and buy up every share you can find in milk powder, which is apparently ‘rocketing’ – Jeremy’s still worried about the looming spectre of a milk shortage following a cull of older cows this year, a measure intended to level up supply and demand.
So, in that context, raw milk’s a real boon – it can only be sold directly at the gate, or in Delph House Farm’s case, via a vending machine, so there’s a better return for the farm. Indeed, if you’ve been imagining burly yeomen dunking a pewter tankard into a pail of still-warm milk, then taking a heaving gulp before striding across golden cornfields to bring in the harvest, then you’re a little way off.
Delph House Farm’s cows are milked morning and evening, then the milk’s run through two sets of three filters – double-triple-filtered, if you like, or sextuple-filtered if you’re feeling particularly Latinate – before it’s put into the bulk tank, rapidly chilled down to four degrees and then piped straight into the vending machine’s sterilised tank. And that’s it.
To people around Denby Dale, the back-to-basics approach wasn’t nearly as alien as it might be to your average semi-skimmed drinker. ‘I think because of where we are, quite a rural community with the little villages that there are round here, people have really been used to drinking raw milk because it’s been there as an option from roundsmen,’ says Jeremy.
‘People just say to me, “This is just milk like we used to drink years ago, I drank this as a kid and it’s never done me any harm.” That’s the general feel really. But then you get somebody who’ll come who’ll go, “What’s this? I’ve never seen this.” I feel strongly that we’ve got a fantastic product here on the farm and we just need to talk to potential customers, and tell them about the process.’
While newbies can be a little taken aback by milk that’s above four percent fat, the word’s spreading across the country. Jeremy got his raw milk vending machine from Jonny Crickmore, a dairy farmer in Suffolk who’s become a lynchpin of raw milk production in the UK as the country’s importer of the machines. A year ago, Jonny had sold three machines. Now, he’s up to 30, and the word’s spreading all the time.
While it’d be remiss not to mention that the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food maintains that pasteurisation is necessary for protecting public health, scares around the safety of raw milk have been rare, and a quick chat with Jeremy and his wife Louise is usually enough to convince people of raw milk’s merits.
‘I think that certainly where we are, with our vending machine, people can make that personal choice: they can look at the farm, they can listen to me and Louise talk about the farm and the cows and everything and they put their trust in us.
They say, “Right, well if it’s as good as you’re saying it is, we’ll give it a go,”’ Jeremy says. Right now, it looks like more and more people are coming round to the Holmes’ way of thinking – and drinking.