Got (raw) milk?

Note: I originally published this article at Tea Leaves.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of being able to buy and drink raw milk (or as some would have it, “real milk”) rather than the pasteurized and homogenized product we all know and love. Part of it is the (realistic) fantasy of being able to make real clotted cream and part is the (unrealistic) vision of myself living in the Dordogne making an earthy, runny cheese from lait cru, which I bring to market each week. After the market, I would gather with my fellow peasant workers of the terroir and we’d sit and quietly get drunk on cheap red wine and complain about stupid Americans and the constantly striking truck drivers.

I always assumed that I’d never get the chance to make either of these fantasies come true, but thanks to a well-placed word, I now have a gallon of raw milk. Time to get to work. Mystery surrounds raw milk. I had always assumed that it was totally illegal to sell it, everywhere in the US. It turns out this isn’t true. Despite it being technically legal in my state, I quickly discovered that since everyone (like me) thinks it’s illegal, trying to get someone to sell you some in any sort of retail setting is difficult to impossible. It was on a tour of a cheesemaking facility north of Pittsburgh that I got my first useful clue – we saw how the farmers delivered raw milk, which the cheesemaker then separated the cream out of, and pasteurized. I asked the owner how I could get some raw milk. Looking at me strangely, he said “I guess you should find a farmer.”

The only problem was, I didn’t know any farmers.

At an Easter dinner, I got into a conversation about cooking and baking; I’d been making a lot of creme fraiche lately, and I let slip my yearning for raw milk to play with, and that I was giving up on ever getting any, since I didn’t feel comfortable driving up to some farmer I didn’t know and asking him if I could fondle his milk cow’s teats. One of the people dining with us said she knew a dairy farmer, and offered to introduce me. I leapt at the offer with enthusiasm. I got a call a few days later setting up a time and place – “It depends on the milking schedule, see.” I was already liking this more and more.

Bob and Tomalee’s farm is nestled in Somerset County under the shadow of giant, elegant, and intimidating windmills. Tomalee is short, voluble, and hugs strangers, all the while accompanied by an entourage of placid dogs and scrawny farm cats. Bob’s face is cheerful and red, and he clearly relishes playing straight man to Tomalee’s trickster. Tomalee seems puzzled by my need for raw milk (“Clotted cream? Never heard of it.”) but is thrilled for the chance to show off her menagerie (“my friends”) to my friends and me. Suppressing my urge to say “Yeah, yeah, lady, just hand over the loot!” I take the tour. And what a tour.

Tomalee’s friends are many and varied. Apart from the milk and meat cows, which don’t “count,” there are of course the pet cows. Which are like the other cows, only cuter. Or something. But my first indication that something is truly different about this farm are the hens. They have little antennae. “Are those peahens?” I say. “Yep!” says Tommalee. And there, in the corner, is a peacock, with a five foot tail. “Did you know that the peacock is a tropical jungle animal?” she asks. “I learned that in science class.” “Huh,” I say, resisting the temptation to ask her “So what the hell is this one doing in Western Pennsylvania?” Next to the Peacock are the rabbit cages, which are next to the pen with the goats and a single (still unsheared) ram.

On a pile of hay near some of the pet cows a black farm cat is sleeping, near some piled up blankets. Then the blankets move. They’re not blankets – they’re a pot bellied pig that has grown to the size of a small washing machine, looking disturbingly like Old Major from the animated version of Animal Farm. “That’s Hunter!” says Tomalee. She walks over to Hunter and unleashes a torrent of high pitched baby talk. Tomalee explains that Hunter is real lazy. We walk down an aisle of about 8 “pet” cows. “We don’t eat friends,” says Tomalee, and I nod. “Never eat anything you’ve been introduced to, like in Alice in Wonderland.” She looks at me funny again, and shakes it off. There’s also a horse. I confide that I was scared of cows when I was younger, because they seemed so huge. Tomalee says she’s scared of horses, when they’re not in a pen, for the same reason.

There are about 50 milk cows in the barn, standing, sitting, eating, pissing (the first time I hear this, I start looking around for the firehose) and generally waiting to be milked. Each animal has a tag on its ear with a number. Above each stall is a sheet of paper with the name of the cow written on it (“Debra”, “Marcy”, “Vanna”…) and notes on what type of feed it gets – grass, corn, soy. I’ve been absentmindedly petting the cows as we walk along. They seem to like being scritched on the sides of their face; several enjoy licking my arm. On my second time trying to pet Debra between her eyes, she lifts her head up, and slides it roughly down the side of my arm, turning it, pushing my arm away roughly.

I have just been brushed off by a cow.

Bob is talking to one of my friends about using Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) to increase milk production, and how he doesn’t use it because he thinks it overworks the cows. These people wouldn’t think to market their products as organic, yet they have an intrinsic distrust of Monsanto corporation. It’s like I’m in heaven. I am salivating at the prospect of trying their milk.

Gold pheasant

Yellow Golden Pheasant

But first, there are more friends to meet. In a set of coops outside the barn are four pheasants, with plumage as bright as any parrot’s. We see the newborn chicks (“peeps”), 5 of them with their mother (2 were eaten by farm cats). We’re brought over to the chicken run, where four male turkeys compete and display for our benefit. Overwhelmed by everything, we stop in briefly to the farmhouse and I collect a gallon of milk in a plastic iced tea bottle. Tomalee won’t take any money; I promise to return after their next milking; we agree that we can work out a price for regular purchases if the first batch works out.

I promise Tomalee I’ll bring some clotted cream with me when I visit again. She says she looks forward to finding out what it is.

The milk itself, when I finally try it, has a musty, almost cheeselike taste, with just a hint of a sulfurous tone. The cream does indeed rise to the top, although the clotted cream didn’t turn out that well, the creme fraiche was awesome. With spring just around the corner, I’m looking forward to going back to visit Tomalee and her friends. I think Debra the cow and I have some unfinished business.

Additional Resources

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