Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Birds’ Milk

I think I was always lactose intolerant, culturally. When I was a kid, full-fat milk (though it was just called milk then) was delivered daily to the front door. Often the little metallic lids of the bottles would have been pecked open by hungry birds. As a child I always thought of milk as “birds’ milk”, as if by piercing the lids the birds now owned the content, but more crucially that they had somehow contaminated the milk with their worm-breath, with their dirty beaks, and with their fanatically deranged pecking. I think that bird-pecked-milk was mainly a winter phenomenon, but I could be wrong. In the summer, especially at weekends, the milk had other reasons for encouraging my disgust: it would have been warming-up in the sunshine for a while before breakfast. If this didn't instantaneously make the milk “go off” I was sure it sent it well on its way.
My mother’s culinary likes and dislikes might have been formed before the Second World War but they were irreversibly stamped by that war. Rationing might have been over by the 1960s and 70s but to my mother wasting food was both sinful and probably an act of treason. Whether it was because of rationing or not she has always been drawn to butter, cream and other fatty, milky products. She would keep a small bowl of brown congealed fat in the fridge. This was the run-off fat from the Sunday roast and would be used for her bread-and-dripping sandwiches. For me it meant that a visit to the fridge was always a fairly queasy experience. She was also a great fan of the “top-of-the-milk” – that thick plug of creamy milk that floated to the top of the milk bottle to produce a stopper made of curd. My mum would want this plug for her cornflakes and it would flop out onto the little flakes followed by a flow of less obviously cheesy milk (now, because she buys thinned, semi-skimmed milk, the plug has disappeared, so she adds actual cream).
During the summer we would always go to Padstow in Cornwall. We always stayed in the same chalet with a view of the dredger endlessly fighting the tidal drifts of mud in the harbour. There were always a few days when we couldn't go to the beach because it was raining, then the choice was either going to town and watch The Sound of Music for the zillionth time, or amuse ourselves in the chalet. My sister and I would play “Crossroads” – it was a game based on pretending we were running the famous, but wholly TV-based, Crossroads motel located on some ring-road near Birmingham. The chalet kitchen had a breakfast bar (endlessly exotic, endlessly glamorous to us) and we used this as the “pass” for our restaurant. I have a feeling that this was a game wholly ruled by my sister. We only served two dishes as far as I can remember: “Banana Bombarder” and “Orange On”. I have no idea of what the bombarder bit of “Banana Bombarder” was (or if that is indeed how you spell this made-up word), but I think “Orange On” consisted of orange squash and milk, and that the coagulated results were both fascinating and extremely repulsive.
Since my childhood milk has got thinner and thinner. The birds don’t peck the morning milk anymore because milk delivery is much less common and when it is delivered it comes in plastic or cardboard containers. We get our milk delivered as little pillows of milk (milk in a bag). I don’t touch it of course: to me it is already contaminated. It is and will always remain birds’ milk. 

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