On Cows and the Sweetness of Milk (Dulce de Leche)

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Tia Linda:  It is Springtime and we are preparing for our spring roundup.  At a roundup we move all cattle into the corrals, eye each animal, and tend to any that need tending. We  talk about pasture and how to work with “the conditions”. Climate and weather are huge topics of conversation, because when you ranch, you first and foremost raise grass and pasture.  After that, you can raise animals.

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Here a mother cow nurses two calves, one her own, one an orphan.

During roundup we have a few cows set in one area for milking.  All milking is done my hand.  It is both a reverent and practical act to milk an animal.  And one you need to be completely present to, as you are working with big animals with big hoofs who are shifting their weight here and there, while you balance on the balls of your feet, as you grip a cold metal pail between your knees. Working warm moist teats, the humid smell of fresh milk flows, the sounds of the warm liquid hits the metal of the pail and then softens as the pail fills.  Most milking happens right before dawn, so the stars are still above, the air is cool, bats are still out hunting insects. As they fly by, I can feel their batwing air currents on my face. The metal pail, initially cold from the morning air, warms as it fills.

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We milk some “Vacas de Leche” because they have great udders. Others because they need a bit of “gentle-ing”. Milking a cow can be just as much about a process as a product. You are teaching her – inviting her –  to trust you, and every morning as you work with her, the hope is that she accepts your invitation.

To the ancient Celts the beginning of spring was called Imbolic, from the old words for “ewes milk” or “in the belly” as pregnant sheep began to lactate.  I love that this ritual is rooted in hoofed animals and milk. I feel a kind of  archetypal resonance with lactating animals.   Female animals.  In Anne Baring’s and Jules Cashford’s scholarly book,  The Myth of the Goddess, they write “there was (a) tradition,… in which the Primeval Waters and the High God (was) feminine, and the heavenly ocean was imagined as a ‘great flood’, which was manifest in the form of a great cow nourishing the world with her rain-milk, an image familiar from the Neolithic.” (P252) Isis and Hathor are just two Goddesses that the authors reference, that embody the cow as cosmic mother.

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Photo Above: This painting on papyrus is from 1000BC shows Hathor; stars of the night on her. You can find this and other ancient Cow as Cosmic Mother representations, in the book cited above. This photo is on the internet.

The image of the cosmic mother as cow is not one most in people modern life have been exposed to.  Nourishment happens on multiple levels, and  we see that pasture based animals’ “life giving” energies manifest in the  nutritional content of milk.  Their milk differs greatly from cows whose lives are spent in the mainstream, industrial food system. In her book,  The Grassfed Gourmet, ,  Shannon Hayes’s  writes: “…  milk from grass-fed animals offers exceptional health benefits, due in large part to the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and the high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). As a result of their pasture based diet, the milk from grass fed cows is naturally high in vitamins A and E and rich in beta-carotene, which contributes to its characteristic buttery color.” She goes on to cite “recent research (that has) uncovered significant findings pointing to the cancer-fighting properties of grass-fed dairy products. A recent Finnish study … concludes that a diet composed of CLA-rich foods, particularly cheese, may protect against breast cancer in post menopausal women.” (see p219)

Just like flowers for honey, grapes for wine, and cactus (liquors) for your margarita, milk directly reflects the land on which the animals are raised. The flavor and texture of milk depends upon the condition of the grasses, and forage, and are affected by  whether or not we  received summer and/or winter rains.

Feeding hard working folks nourishing foods is important during the long “up before sunset -working past dark days” of a cattle roundup. Sweets make it all the sweeter. And one sweet is made with a ranch ingredient: Milk.

RECIPE: Dulce de Leche   (Adapted a tad from Marilyn Noble’s, Southwest Comfort Food)

Ingredients:

2 quarts whole cows milk (pasture raised if you can find it)

3 cups sugar (i had good success with organic cane sugar; honey didn’t work texture   wise, but it tastes OK)

1 vanilla bean

½ teaspoon baking soda

(Note: the goat milk option is called Cajeta. For a vegan option: try coconut milk.)

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In a large saucepan, stir together the milk, sugar, and vanilla bean – and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the baking soda and stir. Reduce heat to low and continue to barely simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Remove the Vanilla bean and continue to simmer for another few hours until the liquid is a golden brown and thickened and reduced to about 2 cups.

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I love eating this simple “sweet”  by the spoonful.  If you have never eaten Dulce de Leche, try it this way first, without any other flavors or on top of any other foods. The flavor and texture are so pure it is as if Life is revealing one of Her simpler riches to you, saying “Ahhhh, you thought it had to be complicated …and all along it was right here, in this very spoon.”

In Sonora, it is eaten on tortillas, cookies, bread, and  stirred into in Atole de Pechita (a Mesquite drink).  I like in on top of mesquite pancakes, mesquite cookies, ice cream, or fresh fruit.

Note: picking up on the theme of nourishment coming in many forms ….  the Aroma that wafts through the kitchen while the milk and sugar are reducing is amazing. It is worth making JUST for the pleasure of inhaling such sweetness.

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2 thoughts on “On Cows and the Sweetness of Milk (Dulce de Leche)

  1. A rich and beautiful piece… Fantastic photos! Your vivid descriptions makes me remember my milking days so well.

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