When we think of milk, we tend to think of the milk in the supermarket chiller: pasteurized, homogenized cow's milk with varying percentages of fat. But not all milks are the same. In fact there are infinite possible combinations of species, breeds, farming sites and methods and types.
Every mammal produces the milk needed to nourish its offspring and help them grow. After weaning, most animals no longer consume milk, but in many places humans have developed food cultures that make ample use of dairy products, especially where it is hard to produce other foods year-round, and people continue to consume milk throughout their whole life.
Over the centuries, often out of necessity, humans have learned how to process the milks of various livestock species to make them last longer, inventing yogurt, butter, cheese and other products.
Cow's milk is 86 to 89 percent water, 3 to 3.7 percent protein, 3.4 to 4.4 percent fat and 4.8 to 5.2 percent sugar (lactose). The milk from Friesian cows contains on average 37 grams of fat, 34 grams of protein and 48 grams of lactose per liter, while a liter of milk from Jersey cows has 51 grams of fat, 38 grams of protein and 50 grams of lactose. However, these are just averages, as the composition of whole milk can vary considerably depending on the season and period of lactation.
Human milk is relatively low in protein and high in lactose, and is therefore very sweet.
Sheep's milk is much more concentrated than cow's milk, with almost double the fat (6.6 to 7.7 percent) and between 5.5 and 6.5 percent protein, which makes it particularly suited to cheesemaking.
Goat's milk has a similar composition to cow's, but when it is turned into cheese it has a lower yield (10 to 15 percent less) and is less adaptable to different types of handling.
Milk from buffalo, donkeys, elk and camels is also used in different cultures and places, and constitutes an invaluable heritage of diversity.
Read about the Slow Food Presidium for yak cheese
Read about milk from dromedaries, elks and others
From the various species, humans have selected the breeds most suited to milk production and cheesemaking, whether because of the quantity they produce or the particular qualities of their milk. Unfortunately many of these breeds are now disappearing, and with them the diverse flavors and types of milk. Industrial production wants volume and standardization instead of diversity and quality, and so "milk machines" are increasingly replacing native breeds. The quality and variety of milk and cheese are suffering as a result.
Friesian and Jersey are just two of the many different breeds of cow. Every breed produces milk with similar characteristics, but there are also differences. The variations in fat and casein content gives the milk different properties, resulting in different cheeses. The most popular breeds of cow today were selected mostly for their high yield, but when it comes to the "cheese test" they can't stand up to the lesser-known breeds. The milk from native breeds remains the best, with the lower yields meaning the milk has better characteristics for cheesemaking.
Breeds like the Montbéliarde, the Abondance, the Charolaise and the Salers in France; the Jersey and the Ayrshire in Britain and the United States; and the Valdostana, the Alpine Grey and the Reggiana in Italy produce milks that are perfect for making cheeses, cheeses that in many cases have become historic and could not exist without this variety of breeds. Without Podolica cows, goodbye Podolica Caciocavallo! Who else could produce such a cheese after grazing in such barren land? The same goes for the marvelous Parmesan made from the milk of the Modenese White [link to the Presidium]. The list could go on and on.
The practice of farming sheep for their milk, meat and wool dates back to prehistory. Today breeds are selected only for their meat and milk, with a particular specialization in milk and cheeses in the Mediterranean area. The richness and cheese yield of sheep's milk makes up for the lower quantity of milk per animal compared to cows.
The breeds most used for the production of milk and cheese in Italy are the Piedmontese Langhe, used for the historic Langhe Tuma [link to the Presidium]; the Sarda, used for Sardinian pecorino [link to Fiore Sardo]; the Comisana; the Barbaresca and the Belice, farmed in Sicily. Like the cow of the same name, the Friesian sheep also has the highest milk yield. Other sheep, like the Massese, the Garfagnana, the Pagliarola and others, can produce both milk and meat.
As with cow's milk, the different breeds, combined with the varying diet of the local countryside, produce an infinite variety of different milks and cheeses.
Goats are known for their hardiness and ability to adapt to difficult conditions, Domesticated in Syria in around 8,000 BC, goats underwent an evolution that significantly changed their morphology before goat farming was introduced to Europe and then the rest of the world.
Despite its nutritional richness, goat's milk generally has a lower cheese yield than cow's milk, and goat cheeses are less suited to aging. Once again, the different breeds are responsible for a wide variety of different cheeses. In Europe, the Camosciata delle Alpi is the most common, being the most adaptable and productive. Switzerland also has the Saanen, the Appenzel and the Toggenburg, and Italy the Maltese, the Sicilian Grigentana, the Garganica (known for its fecundity) and the Roccaverano (whose milk is used to make Robiola cheese). In France the Chèvre du Rove can trace its origins back to Mesopotamia.