“My cow is a commonwealth to me… for she allows myself, my wife and son for to banquet ourselves withal.”
~ Food in Early Modern England
A while back, we posted a Springtime Ode to the Milkmaid. Well it’s time to recognize the popularity of the product she was selling!
From early 17th century England, well into the mid 18th century, the uses for milk can best be described as abundant! However, in the early 1600’s it may have been hard to foresee the leaps in popularity this common resource would make. Although it was consumed, in one form or another, by all classes, it was most common among the poor until the mid 17th Century, especially in the form of cheese and butter. It was only used amongst the upper classes for the occasional eccentricity, such as the Earl of Rutland in 1602 who was rumored as preferring to bathe in milk!
Nevertheless, the notion of the beneficial properties of milk consumption came about when it was noted of “the fair complexions and good health of those who drank milk…” In addition, it was thought to be the source of farmers’ and servants’ ability to complete hard labor day in and day out. Often consuming the leftovers such as whey (leftover liquid from cheese-making) or buttermilk (the byproduct of butter-making), the poor found ways of making even the lowest products of the dairying process ready for consumption with a few additions such as breadcrumbs, sugar, or spices. The availability of dairying changed, however; as milk climbed in popularity amongst the elite and dairy farmers took up commercial pig-keeping, the leftover dairy that once was disappeared. Another reason for the diminishing availability of milk was due to the enclosure of what was public grazing area during the late Tudor period (late 1500’s, early 1600’s).
Furthermore, as the city populations began to grow (specifically in England) and keeping a cow became more inconvenient, as previously described, dairy shops took the place of local farms and milkmaids hawking their product in the streets took the place of individual household cows (Clarification: Just so nobody asks the question… no, I am NOT referring to milkmaids as cows!). These maids would spend the day carrying pails of milk on yolks, and sometimes driving the cows themselves through the streets to be milked at your door. This option was to bring the milk in from the surrounding countryside, although the milk lost its warmth on the way into town, whereas on-the-spot milking ensured its warmth and freshness.
As a result of these “new” practices, cows became town animals kept in town dairies. Oftentimes the result equaled poor-tasting and poor-quality milk. This was the result of an improper diet; the feed given to town cows often consisted of bean shells, cabbage leaves and brewers’ grain, as opposed to the preferred natural pasture grass of the countryside. Moreover, the “town milk” was of poor quality due to the processing before it was sold. Usually diluted with water, it was skimmed of all cream before it made its way into any market. It was also guaranteed to be contaminated with whatever found its way into the pails as it was carried through the busy English streets. Thus, the safest, best quality milk came straight from the country-bred cow, and this was what was desired, not only to be enjoyed as a glass of milk, but also for the dairying processes to turn the drink into proper fare.
~ Written by Mary Barbagallo, Intern
Food and Drink in Britain – C. Anne Wilson, the Anchor Press Ltd., 1973, Great Britain
Food in Early Modern England – Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 – Joan Thirsk, Continuum Books, 2007, New York, NY