Cream of the Crop

In our eight months of milking, we have worked out our own pail-to-pot-to-bottle system. Jordan carries the warm foamy milk from the barn in a stainless steel pail. We take the pail and strain it into a pot that sits in the refrigerator until the next milking. At that point, we pour the milk from the pot into half gallon glass bottles that we purchased over the web from an Amish family, thereby making way for the next batch. Why this three-stage process?

It’s all about the cream.

Milk from a living cow is itself alive. It keeps evolving, changing, separating from itself, unless it is cooked to kill (about 180 degrees) or shaken so furiously that it refuses to separate. Left on its own, what separates are the elements of various densities, with the fluffy fat molecules floating to the surface, while the heavier water, protein, lactose, and minerals settle below. The cream rises to the top. (Yes, skim milk is heavier than cream!)

While there are cream separators you can buy with asundry washable (i.e., needing to be washed) parts, we prefer to rely on the tried and true method of gravity. Sitting in that pot between milkings, the milk has a chance to do its thing. It is our daily non-activity. We let the cream rise, until a half-inch layer of skin coats the surface of the milk, awaiting the swirling, skimming movement of a large spoon. We sort the cream into a quart jar, before pouring the rest into bottles to drink.

Why catch the cream? It’s where the value lies. The cream makes butter, ice cream, rich cheeses, and (surprise) cream of the whipped, sour, heavy and light varieties. We are still amazed by the stuff. “Look at this!! It’s massive! It’s gorgeous!”

Still, we have learned a thing or two. In the beginning, we were obsessed with the idea that more cream is better. Tastier. It is hard to imagine otherwise, given how our culture romanticizes creaminess, the cream on top, the cream of the crop.

Yet the skin we peel from the top of our pot is more like sludge than liquid. It folds and holds its shape, sticking to the spoon, dropping in globs, heavier than the heaviest cream from the carton… and deceptively light. It makes ice cream that is too foamy; coffee that is too thick, and butter that takes way too long to churn. More cream is not better. What the cream needs, we have learned is its milk—to weigh it down, spread out its flavor, and deliver its charms.

Twelve hours is just enough. Separation is partial. The milk we bottle is not fully stripped of skin, and we skim enough milk with the cream to make it flow.
In American culture, we assume that the cream can and does and should rise to the top. The irony is that we don’t let it happen. We spin the cream away as soon as we can, forcing a complete separation of milk elements. We heat them to exterminate all bacteria, bad or good, mix and match for desired products, and the shake them into bits so small that any difference is homogenized. Many elements. One substance.

We put our milk through these paces ostensibly for our own health. Our milk will stay fresh, be user friendly, and not carry unwanted germs into our homes. Is it so?

The practices began with the advent of a dairy industry—and its excesses. With the increase of urban life, thrifty entrepreneurs carted milk in from rural areas and supplemented it with “swill milk” from confined cows eating the waste from urban distilleries. The “milk” makers added plaster paris, molasses, and other thickeners to give their product a golden glow. The waves of milk-borne illness caused by these practices were not due to milk—but to the humans milking it for profits.

So to protect the many from the excesses of the few, laws requiring pasteurization followed, along with practices of homogenization that prevented the killed bacteria from collecting at the bottom of your glass. It was a regulatory response that, in the end, favored the dairy industry by knocking out competition from any milk whose cream really would rise to the top. In some states, including ours, selling raw milk is illegal. Large dairy operations are the laws’ key defenders.

We didn’t realize that by owning our own cow, we would be engaging in an emergent resistance movement to the hegemony of the dairy business over our daily foods! Dear Daisy, our calm, cud-chewing compatriot, is producing contraband.

And we drink it up, gladly, gratefully, after letting the cream rise. It is a slow process, and one we never complete. For what results is always best when mixed in various proportions with the milk it leaves below. The slight separation opens up all kinds of creative possibilities. We add more cream for butter, less for ice cream, less for cheese, and less again for milk, marveling at the combinations and permutations. No wonder the industry wants to corner the market–and our culinary imagination. They don’t want our cream to rise.

Maybe it should.

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