Drinking milk is underrated.
Is there anyone under the age of 50 still drinking a glass of it at lunch? I have one friend who swears that a whole crate of milk can cure a hangover—but for most people, it achieves the exact opposite. But anyone who has tasted milk straight from a cow's udder knows that it's not like the stuff that sits on supermarket shelves.
Two-and-a-half years ago, designer Sietske Klooster worked out of a studio on a farm that changed her views on milk forever. "I still don't drink a lot of it, but I definitely learned how to taste milk. I discovered that milk from different farmers can be very diverse." She believes we should consider the entire experience of drinking milk, down to the cup or glass that we drink it from. The overall experience is what counts.
"Young people think of milk as a product they were required to drink as a child," says Klooster. "Back in the day, everybody said that milk is healthy, so you have to drink it." These days, the culinary rules have loosened up a bit.
Klooster's experience on the farm inspired her recent brainchild, MelkSalon, a pop-up milk bar in Amsterdam, which is helping to shift contemporary notions of milk-drinking altogether. With white sofas and stark tables, de MelkSalon has zero synthetic components. What you can find here is pure, creamy white milk from different Dutch farmers—Family Uitentuis, Beemster, Jaring Brunia, Friesland, The Regte Heijden, and Brabant, for example, all make appearances.
This is the place where you can bump into real dairy farmers in Amsterdam's city center. One farmer, 29-year-old milkman Jaring Brunia, lives in the northern province, Friesland. On a recent visit to the pop-up, I rubbed elbows with Brunia, who starts to tell me me how difficult the work-life balance is: toiling for twelve hours a day, and maintaining an active social life, cooking in the evenings, and doing sports, too. We're not very different after all.
To taste and note the differences in milk, Sietske has invited Dutch Milk Sommelier, Bas de Groot. "I drink a lot of milk," Bas explains. "I once got the idea that milk could also be considered a food product with terroir, just like wine." Bas also runs a creative communications company for the agricultural sector. "Where a cow lives, what she eats, her breed, and how her farmer works all affect the taste," he explains. He's convinced that he can taste whether a cow has eaten a lot of corn or grass. "What you put into it comes back out. Corn gives a negative taste because its almost only starch, and starch is a substance that cows do not take naturally and therefore cannot properly digest."
Yet his comparison of milk flavors with the terroir properties in wine isn't the easiest sell; farmers typically own different breeds of cows and feed them imported grain from all over the world. "As a result, we cannot easily determine whether something is the 'Merlot' or 'Sauvignon Blanc' of milk," he tells me. But the nuances in milk flavors sourced from different farms can be pronounced, he says. "I just tasted milk from Beemster, which was very creamy, really full, with an almost warming feeling that I got from it. The Regte Heijden from Brabant was much brighter and almost floral, like fresh cut grass."
The differences fascinate de Groot. When he discovered that Jersey Milk from Weerribben is brilliant for cappuccinos, he was overjoyed because it "froths like a charm!" Milk that contains a good ratio of both fat and protein is much better for milk-based coffee drinks. "I am also curious how buffalo milk tastes in coffee, which I think would be great," he confesses. "The tastiest milk comes from buffaloes because it has lots of protein and high fat—around 10 percent."
Imagine drinking a Buffalo milk flat white.
Both Bas de Groot and Sietske Klooster are unhappy with the recent approach to milk; it's been treated like a bulk product. And since most Dutch farmers are working in cooperatives, all their milk ends up mixed together. "The only difference that we know is the difference between low-fat, whole milk, organic, and shelf-stable milks. And most of what Dutch farmers produce is, of course, for abroad. Only 11 percent remains in the Netherlands, but we produce a lot," says Bass. Thankfully, the European dairy quota was raised on April 1, which means that Dutch dairy farmers can now milk as much as they want to.
Sietske's perspective is simple, though: "When the industrialization of livestock started, there was no sense that there were any differences in taste. The attitude was along the lines of: 'we need to feed everyone.' Now, we are in the time that industrialization has reached the limit of growth." Because availability is not a problem anymore, she hopes that this is a good time to look and taste the different ways in which farmers handle things moving forward.
Dairy farmer Jaring Brunia is now searching for an alternate chain to offload milk from his seventy cows. Right now, his "more than organic" milk disappears into the big pile, too. He finds farming fantastic, but never gets high off his own supply. "When I was young, I found it gross. I did everything to make it better; I even put sugar in it or made chocolate milk." To this day, he doesn't drink a lot of milk, but the occasional glass is a nice indulgence.
Bas de Groot has advice for Dutch dairy farmers: "Everyone should do as they want, but there is room for other milk. If you are a manager type you have to produce for the world, but when you love people, it's better to focus on a niche market." Try, for instance, feeding your cows with reject produce from greenhouses that have ugly peppers and weird shaped tomatoes.
Maybe terroir of tomato is the next-wave for milk flavors.