Robin Geld recalls her farm life experience, where she grew up having raw milk, raw milk cheeses and where food safety was a primary concern.
I grew up on Fazenda Pau D’Alho (Garlic Tree Farm), near the town of Tietê, in the State of São Paulo, Brazil, where my parents still live. When we go to the farm to visit them, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all delight in what we always considered real milk, and the butter, cottage cheese and Minas type cheese, made from this milk and at home. The grandchildren were able to appreciate a few extras that great grandchildren no longer can, due to my parents’age, one of which, the initiation rite everyone went through, not only family, but friends and visitors.
Saturday afternoons and on Sundays it was my father who milked one or two cows for us and a family of workers who lived on the farm. We made sure to take any newcomer to the corral to watch my father milking. Children, adolescents, visitors from the cities, watched entransed by the milking rhythm, the milk bucket filling up with the white and bubbly liquid. They’d bring their heads really close. And then my father with a mischievous look in his eyes would suddenly aim one of the teets straight at the curious onlooker, and it was quite a milk baptism! An initiation rite into the pleasures of the farm and love for all there raised, planted, native and wild.
We always had the privilege of a refrigerator and even freezer at the farm, and never cultivated the taste for milk warm from the cow. The milk in the bucket was put in milk cans. One would be left out of the fridge, to make Minas type cheese or cottage cheese. The rest of the milk went into the fridge, and when cold, my mother would skim the thick layer of cream to make butter. And it was this milk, without the cream and cold, but whole and tasty, that we drank—even if we didn’t want to, for our health. Anything else was viewed with quite some disdain: boiled milk, powdered milk, from the city, tasteless and without nutrition.
We enjoyed with a bit of pride watching with what pleasure guests, friends, day visitors, appreciated especially my mother’s cheeses made from what to us was simply normal, real milk, and that today is called raw milk, following recipes she learned at the farm she grew up on in the U.S., and in Brazil, especially the Minas type cheese, based on the traditional cheese from the State of Minas.
My parents knew well their animals and plantations, they already practiced conservationist methods, knew that good care of soil and water springs takes to good fruit, edible and/or beautiful (what a vegetable garden, what flowers, what birds!), and also, a sturdier, more whole, human being. The 240 acre farm was of a size still sustainable for such practices… today much much harder in surviving.
The standards today exalting the homogenous, mass production supposedly to feed
more people at a lower cost, sterilization in the name of health, have in due proportions, their merits, but generally do not convince me. At best, you can gather the milk from various regions in one day, pasteurize, and what comes out is one kind of milk. Whether good and clean, that’s another story. Up to date I have not known any machine, pot or pan that does not dirty, degrade, nor plastic container that guarantees hygiene. To me there is no greater cleanser than water, water and water, and the conscience of those responsible. Gloved hands can very well scratch improper places, and how much more can happen along the way only those who do not want to, can’t imagine. Not to mention the resulting plastic or insipid taste.
A batch of cheeses can turn out quite similar, but the same not even two siblings, nor two cows, nor even the same cow along various days, and the good cook knows that what is special in the end, is the daily touch and being attentive to the whole of each day. A certain standard, yes, my mother’s cottage cheese has a certain consitency and taste, and smell… by the smell, those who know can tell a lot about their products which I doubt any machine could discern.
Sanitation/ hygienization? They cleaned and still do the normal way- soap, sponge, water—buckets ( in which the calf weaned from the milking cow stuck its head to guzzle up the milk reserved for him ), the corral was swept and washed in a normal way—usually just water, occasionally with a horridly strong smelling product-, and as well the hands—water and soap—with no neurosis. It was a bit comical to us with an American background, the procedure of some cooks or visitors who only drank boiled milk: they would boil the milk and right after blow all their germs over it to get the bit of cream floating on top to a corner, before pouring the milk.
This is how we grew up on the farm, five siblings and a bunch of friends and constant visitors, within a philosophy that if by chance you came upon a fly floating in the milk, water or juice, my mother would say, “Tut tut, just take it out, it won’t harm anyone,” we drank water from the spring, dug our hands in vegetable rows to watch the soil aerating worms—and in which the real evil was the super hygienic, the harsh cleansing products and boilings that did away with taste, nutrition and the life of everything. Poor visitor who arrived from the city full of squimishes and disgusts; either the person was broken down into the good tastes of life, getting not even to care about my father’s manure smelling boots at the breakfast table, or would leave never to return, not having passed the enlivement test. My mother who is an excellent imitator, roused great laughter right upon the person’s departure.
I venture that everything at the farm rebelled in the presence of the oddities of people contaminated by the neurosis of sanitary and supposedly life saving dogmas pro white and shining of impersonal industry. The boxers, usually friendly, walked around in grim observation of the madame from São Paulo with high heels and stiff sprayed hair full of “don’t touch mes.” It was exactly on one of these that Nicky, the raccoon-like quati full of pranks that spent some time at our house, decided to jump and grab by the shoulders!
It became part of farm history the weekend in which around ten Peace Corps nurses descended upon the house, all pretty, with soft skin emanating innocent goodness and good will. They decided to help out and with gloved hands, entered into action in the kitchen, giving it a treat never before undergone, water and more water boiling to wash everything in sight. My mother, who had just finished seasoning with fresh herbs and bare hands a roast, between disconcerted and marvelled with the scene, opened the oven, lit a match and BOOM! The explosion threw her back, caused various damages amidst the smell of burnt hair, and then the nurses had their hands full with what to do! They were broken down. They already had the adventurous spirit to leave the comforts of the U.S.A. to meet with who knows what in Brazil, and the stove rebellion seems to have activited both pioneer and farming roots of the damsels. Post repairs, no boiling, interfering; they went on to help in the garden and enjoy!
My parents had their agrilcultural degrees, cattle vaccinated, and as they lived on the farm and knew their animals, trained and had capable workers for such, they knew when something was wrong… and took care promptly of what had to be taken care of. Rarely were the occasions when, due to mastitis or something similar, we were deprived of the milk for some time by a certain cow. I remember well those milk providing cows: Holandesa, Mineira, Januária, Meiga…
Today I understand the privilege of this situation, and the why of boiled milk in places where there is no refrigeration, and I even understand the process of pasteurization for lack of knowing the milk producing cows or their owners.
I know also today, with technological advances, easier exchange of information, that small and medium farmers have a higher chance, particularly those who deal with special, artisanal production, of becoming known, having a say in laws and regulations that concern them, being rightfully valued, and gaining sustainable participation in the market. They are better able today to ensure their continuity, and to serve as inspiration.
With my background and as collaborator of the Brazilian NGO SerTãobras that aims among other things to support small farmers, focussing on the traditional artisanal producers of raw milk Minas cheese (a national heritage), listening to their cheese making stories, personally and in the documentary “O mineiro e o queijo” being launched in various cinemas throughout Brazil this month, I cannot but support and spread the news on this raw milk raw cheese, alias real milk real cheese, matter that in the end concerns us all.
By Robin Geld