Lait de Normandie: How Milk is Made
I arrive in Normandy as spring begins to take full effect. Warming temperatures and longer days signify more farmwork and an urgency to take advantage of greening fields. Sunlight streams everywhere and the grass grows fast and thick even under the constant assault of roving ruminants. Local cows will graze in these fields for an entire day, relishing their change in diet from winter hay and silage, to tender grass and wild plant shoots. They will feed for almost fourteen hours a day and be milked twice in that period—from the precious raw liquid treasure collected, the rarest of products are made.
The air is frigid and crisp, loaded with moisture. It smells like Singapore after the rain, earthy and vegetal but colder, with a slight animal thing going on. I meet dairy dude Fernand* before sunlight has fully commenced its warming duties. He waits for me beside a nineteenth century farmhouse building, with severe walls of ageing mortar and irregularly laid slate. The land belongs to the family of his friend and business partner Armand*, whose relatives have run this farmstead for four generations. On their fifteen acres of pristine land, a herd of purebred Normande cows, two Jerseys, a handful of chickens and a donkey roam. Fernand oversees the production and quality of milk collected from the cows, and uses a portion of that to create exceedingly small-batch artisanal products.
The milking shed is a walk across a wide driveway covered in fine slate-blue gravel, and for a minute the satisfying crunch of my steps joins the spirited morning song in the trees. Goldfinch and wren, says Fernand. We enter another rugged structure with mortar floors and rough-hewn brick walls, but inside sits a gleaming stainless steel tank, hoses snaking out of one end, a viewing window and control panel attached to the other. A petrol generator powers the system of pumps and vacuum containers that deliver milk straight from milking room next door. The cows have had their first milking, and this storage tank is full of cream-coloured milk. This tank’s two essential duties are to cool the milk and keep it moving, to prevent premature separation of cream. Fernand explains the need to rapidly chill the fresh milk to four degrees centigrade to retard bacterial activity. He opens the viewing port and allows me to peer into the tank.
Swirling liquid is kept in constant motion by a submerged pump, and accompanied by a low mechanical hum. Three quarters of this milk is sold to a collective comprising local farmers and artisanal makers of dairy products. Beside the large collection tank are two intermediate basins made of acrylic, that collect warm milk straight from the pumps. Fernand has saved one of these to decant into bottles directly, for sale at a weekly farmer’s market that this farmstead hosts. At two p.m. today, his neighbouring farmers and makers will gather at one of the tidier sheds nearby and set up tables to sell spring produce to locals in the area. This milk too, needs to be chilled quickly, and we cross to an adjacent building made of powder-coated steel and insulated panelling.
I am welcomed into a laundry room that doubles as an ‘airlock’ of sorts, and Fernand instructs me to put on a full set of cleanwear consisting of shoe covers, gown, hairnet and gloves. He dons the same gear, hoists his unwieldy tub of warm milk and opens the door to his silent creamery. Banks of clean mason jars, milk bottles and plastic cheese moulds greet me on one end of the room, neatly arranged upside down on stainless steel racks. The rubberised floor has a slight gradient towards the centre, where a recessed, industrial drain point indicates frequent washing. Insulated pipes hug the walls and connect to another smaller, shiny storage tank. Fernand sets his acrylic milk tub onto a table and instructs me to bring him clean milk bottles. Each is inspected before being placed into a milk crate, and he begins carefully pouring fresh milk into each one.
Settling into his rhythm, he explains that his margins are slim with these products, but the locals at the farmer’s market have been asking for more unpasteurised milk and cream, and many of them have become his friends over the years. In between asking him questions and listening to his responses, I steady each bottle as a rush of pale yellow liquid enters. In oenology, an observation of the ‘ropes’ of a wine provides more information on the thickness, viscosity and fabric of each mouthful—this liquid ivory too, has ‘ropes’. I am mesmerised as each fresh pour of milk begins in slow motion with a gently curved head, before revealing sinuous ribbons in a pattern that repeats itself mid-pour. The mouth of each pint receptacle fogs up from the residual heat of the warm liquid being streamed in and a friendly gurgle rises in pitch, over and over again. Before I am aware of it, I have regulated my breathing in this quiet room, not wanting to break the cadence of this milk decanting ritual.
As we complete a third milk crate, I snap out of my milky meditation and take notice of the strange aromas in this production room. Disinfectant that smells not unlike hand sanitiser, a gentle funk of cheese and a distinct sweetness that resembles condensed milk. I wonder what other intoxicating things are made in this room. At this point, we have been squatting awkwardly at length and Fernand rises with a grunt. He slides the milk crates across the floor into a waiting cold room before ambling off to find a glass. He pours out the remaining cup of full-cream milk left in the tub, and hands me the cup and with a grin. I take it with both hands and marvel at the mammalian warmth of this chalice, before tentatively bringing my lips to the gentle bubbles on the surface. A couple of seconds pass as I process the incredibly smooth texture of this liquid and its pronounced sweetness. A robust vanilla note is joined by an earthy wheatgrass-like flavour that lingers on the tongue. I gulp down the rest of the milk quickly, and Fernand nods in approval of my enthusiastic lip-smacking.
*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.