Milk and milking

miniature churn
© F H Powell 2009

Up until the 1920’s many rural households kept a house cow, often on loan from a local farmer. In cities there were dairymen who delivered milk, usually measuring it from a large churn into jugs provided by the customer. The jug of milk would then be stored on a marble shelf in a larder (which was generally built facing north, so it remained cool); the jug would be covered with a cloth or crochet cover to keep flies and other pests out of the milk. Later glass milk bottles with cardboard tops were used, tin foil tops had replaced the cardboard tops by the 1950’s, but glass bottles are still used by milkmen today.

miniature jug and bowl covers
© F H Powell 2007

The cow was milked by hand twice a day until they went dry and were returned to the farmer to calve. When the cow was not available the household often milked a goat to provide milk.
Sometimes cream was removed from the milk and used in many recipes. Cream could be made into butter, but needed to be soured slightly first, this usually happened naturally (especially in summer), although more often a small amount of soured milk was added to speed up the process. Butter then had to be churned before the sour taste developed and spoiled the taste. Butter churning is basically a method of agitating the milk until the butter forms into solids. The remaining milk is called buttermilk and was either given to children to drink or used in recipes such as bread and scones. Once washed the butter would be ‘patted together’ to expel air and water (which would cause it to go rancid) and salt added to preserve it. Properly salted butter will keep for a surprisingly long time.
Another way of using milk was to make it into cheese. Cheeses made in cottages took several forms from the humble cottage cheese, which is very simple to make from slightly soured cheese in summer. This cheese is not pressed into any shape and still has a high liquid content, and therefore does not keep long. A longer lasting soft cheese, which has rennet added to make the milk curdle without turning it sour. If these curds are placed in a muslin bag and left to drain they form this soft cheese, however if the curds are then pressed and even more water expelled you get a harder cheese, which keeps much longer. The flavour of many of these hard cheeses actually improves with age.