Raw Milk, Fermentation, Yogurt and Healthy Cultures

When I began learning about dairying, one of the first interesting things I noticed is the stages raw milk goes through if allowed to sit. Milk itself is filled with bacteria, and when kept warm continues to be a great home for bacteria. Now, your gut needs healthy bacterias, the friendly creatures that are an indispensable part of a healthy digestive system, and milk is a great source of these "probiotics," as the health conscious will tell you. And while milk comes "ready-made" with good bacteria, it can grow even better as it ferments. Being such a great place for bacteria, however, milk can also grow bad things in it, which is why pasteurization was introduced.

But as [clean] raw milk sits, the bacteria begins to work its magic. These bacteria, also called "cultures", first begins to "clabber" the milk, which appears as a sort of yogurt, which is actually what it is. Sometime, long ago, someone looked at clabbered milk and said, "I'll still eat that." That milk continues to go through various stages of firming up until eventually the whey separates out and a hardened mass forms up top. Perhaps someone more adventurous, and hungry, looked at that and said, "I'll still eat that." I can assure you that sitting in a bucket in a barn, it doesn't immediately look like something good to eat.

That hard form of milk is what we now call cheese. And, interestingly, those "cultures" that made it are a big part of human culture itself, because particular places produced particular and somewhat unrepeatable cheeses through the bacteria - the culture - of the place. (And yes, the process of making it is more than letting milk sit in the bucket.) The romantic realism of G.K. Chesterton links the loss of these "cultures" in local cheeses with the loss of culture itself, in a famous and funny essay on cheese. In it he laments the loss of place and the "homogenization" (to borrow another dairy word) of food and society into inorganic machines:

Once in endeavouring to lecture in several places at once, I made an eccentric journey across England, a journey of so irregular and even illogical shape that it necessitated my having lunch on four successive days in four roadside inns in four different counties. In each inn they had nothing but bread and cheese; nor can I imagine why a man should want more than bread and cheese, if he can get enough of it. In each inn the cheese was good; and in each inn it was different. There was a noble Wensleydale cheese in Yorkshire, a Cheshire cheese in Cheshire, and so on. Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that paltry and mechanical civilization that holds us all in bondage. Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism. Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence. Both the good and the bad civilization cover us as with a canopy, and protect us from all that is outside. But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella - artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform... - G.K. Chesterton, "Cheese", Published in `Alarms and Discursions' (1910)

Chesterton longed for places to care about food and people, which means they care about cultures. If you read that last sentence to mean the "cultures" in the food, you understand his point. If you thought it was talking about the way of life in a particular place, you also understand the point, because it’s the same one.

Today most yogurts are just barely cultured (so they are legally "yogurt"), then thickened and flavored using artificial means. At our dairy we introduce the cultures after a minimum pasteurization and allow them to grow for most of the day, which means that the health of the raw milk is kept as much as possible and that the cultures you get are live and active, so you get the full probiotic benefit of them. Also, the taste is not engineered to be good, but is good because it is actually and naturally good. It takes a while, but it’s worth it. But, more importantly, we care about the food, the people, and the place where we live, which means we have a passion for cultures, in both senses of that word.