Most of us consume milk. We put it on cereal and add it to coffee. We give it to our children by the glassful to build up their bones. Women are encouraged to drink it throughout adulthood to maintain those bones.
We select this milk from an ever-expanding range. Milk comes in whole, reduced-fat, low-fat and no-fat versions. We have organic milk and milk labeled as coming from farms that do not use hormones.
But to Northern Californian dairy farmer Ron Garthwaite, these milks aren't milk at all. They are "reconstituted milk-flavored beverages."
Garthwaite runs Claravale Dairy in Watsonville, a farming community somehow holding on in the path of the dot.com wealth south of Santa Cruz. His 60 Jersey cows are the last of California's 1.4-million herd providing milk that, aside from filtering, goes straight from cow to bottle.
"We don't add anything to it," says Garthwaite, "and we don't take anything out of it."
The result is slightly golden, exceptionally rich and almost sweet. At its freshest, it has a perfume of hay. When it is left to stand, a full head of cream rises to the top of the bottle.
It reminds us that milk is variable. Change the cow to a Brown Swiss, a Welsh Black or an Ayrshire and put that animal on grass instead of dried hay and the milk would change, becoming less creamy, more flowery, ever-varying. Old-time farmers will say they can tell where their cows have been grazing by the taste of the milk.
By contrast, the milk we buy in supermarkets will be uniformly white. Its cream won't rise. And a lactic perfume will be detectable only if the milk is boiled. Chances are it will have come from Friesians, the black and white Dutch breed prized for the volume, rather than the quality, of the milk they produce.
This Friesian will typically have been kept in herds of about 800 cows and fed not grass but standardized mixes of grain, minerals, old citrus, alfalfa and nut husks. Today, according to UC Davis estimates, about a third of the herds in California are treated with hormones to increase production.
The milk will be standardized, fortified, pasteurized and homogenized. Translated, this means that it will be taken apart and put back together again, not always in the same proportions. Then it will be cooked and emulsified.
Is it still milk? It is the milk we know. Garthwaite says that he runs Claravale Dairy to keep alive the memory of milk Americans knew right up until World War II: raw milk. It is a kind of milk that is on the brink of extinction.
Garthwaite was educated as a geneticist and took to farming only after becoming interested in the history of California's old coastal dairies. In 1995 he apprenticed himself to the founder of Claravale Dairy, Kenneth Peake.
Peake was something of a local hero. He started the dairy in 1927 and, in the 69 years that he ran it, he steadfastly refused to process his milk.
In 1996, Garthwaite bought the herd, equipment and right to the Claravale name. When Peake died last year at 91, Garthwaite suddenly found himself the only man in the state willing and able to bottle raw milk. He kept on doing it. "It's our heritage," says Garthwaite.
True to the dairy's tradition, Garthwaite refuses to use hormones. When dairy nutritionists tell him that he can increase output of his Jerseys by using commercially formulated feeds, he declines. His cows dine on hay. He says he'll register as organic when he gets around to it.
Like Peake, he is clearly an animal lover. His brown Jerseys wear bells, not ear-tags, and have names, not numbers. "This is Chloe," he says. "She's my favorite cow. She's a very serious cow."
The milk from Chloe et al. will be bottled and distributed the same day. Way back, Peake used to deliver it in an old Chevy. Garthwaite has distributors who pick it up.
At the milk's freshest (the first two days of about a five-day life span), its richness would delight a connoisseur. Dairy technology literature confirms Garthwaite's claim that Jersey milk has half again more protein and fat than the milk of a Friesian.
At a recent tasting held at UC Davis by dairy economist Bees Butler, students marked Claravale highest for "mouth-feel" but surprised Butler by scoring it lowest for appearance. It wasn't white. They had never seen cream-colored milk.
They were also, Butler noted, afraid of it. "You should have heard these kids saying, 'Oh, do I have to taste the raw?' They'd already gotten the story that raw milk was bad. So they all thought they were going to catch listeriosis."
THE FALL OF RAW MILK
Nothing contributed to the rise of milk processing so profoundly as the notion that drinking raw milk is risky. Today, selling raw milk is illegal in most states--it is allowed in only about 20. California is remarkable in that a 35-year campaign waged by the founders of Alta-Dena Dairy preserved the right for most stores to sell it. It can be sold, that is, if the bottle carries the warning that it "may contain disease-causing microorganisms."