Milky ways


Last week was National Breastfeeding Week, but no one invited me to any breastmilk events. Yet if the week was in any respect serious in its celebration of mother's milk, there must surely have been cook-offs all over Britain. Rice puddings ought to have been baked. Butter would have been churned. Experts should have compared the relative merits of milk squeezed from different breeds of mother - the organic North Country matron probably producing a creamier drink than the chocolate-fed spotted urban variety.

Something tells me that none of this in fact took place. Humans, in common with other mammals, abandon their mother's milk after infancy and move on to other nourishment. The thought of breastmilk as a food disgusts us slightly, reminding us of our animal nature. But what a food it is. Not only does it contain all the vitamins, minerals and energy a baby requires, it also cleverly alters with the weather, becoming richer in winter and more watery in summer, to quench the infant's growing thirst. The colostrum which precedes milk, a yellowy and protein-rich fluid, even protects against disease with its high concentration of antibodies.

The weird thing about human beings is not that they ever suckled at the breast as babies but rather that, having grown up, they should go on to steal the milk of other animals. No other mammal behaves in this way, not even predatory ones. The cat doesn't drink the milk of the mouse, whereas goats, sheep, camels, mares and llama have all been milked for our nourishment - though by far the most exploited udders belong to the dairy cow.

In the west, bovine milk is seen as the most innocent of foodstuffs - white, bland and innocuous. Yet, fed to the wrong person, it can be lethal. Baby humans, unlike calves, cannot tolerate it. Karl Marx's son-in-law, the socialist Paul Lafargue, inadvertently killed his second child, Jeannie, by insisting she be fed nothing but cow's milk in the cause of scientific endeavour. In adults, too, inability to digest cow's milk is the rule rather than the exception. Newborns produce an enzyme, lactase, that enables them to digest the lactose, or milk sugar, in mother's milk. According to the food historian Reay Tannahill, "75 per cent of Africans, Indians, Persians, Arabs and East Europeans" stop producing lactase in maturity, whereas 96 per cent of western Europeans continue to produce it. A liking for cow's milk in adults is, globally and historically, much odder than the baby's liking for human milk.

Cow's milk and human milk are not entirely dissimilar. They contain approximately the same amount of water (87 per cent) and fat (about 4 per cent). But it would be harder to make cheese from human milk because it has a lower percentage of the casein proteins that coagulate into curds. Human milk is also easier on the stomach and, unlike cow's milk, contains a "bifidus factor" which inhibits the growth of harmful microbes in the digestive tract.

One of the peculiarities of breastmilk is that, although almost all of us have drunk pints of it in our time, very few can describe its taste. This is a serious memory lapse. Retasting mother's milk ought, therefore, to be the ultimate Proustian experience. The problem is where to get it. Our actual mothers have probably dried up long ago and the prospect of tasting one's own milk is creepy, as I found after expressing a bottle for my newborn recently. I stared at it for some time before forcing down a teaspoonful. It tasted . . . warmly sweet and almost sugary, with a thin texture on the tongue and a berryish aftertaste. I don't think I'll be churning my own butter anytime soon.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning