Friday, 2 August 2013


It was a short story that haunted me when I was younger. By Joan Aiken, I think, its main character, a child, became obsessed about the moon: first she dreamed of it as a luxuriant, shining white garden but, in later dreams, it appeared to her as an empty, dusty desert. Falling ill, the girl went to hospital, where a man in a white coat showed her under a microscope her earlier visions of the moon. He then told her that what she was examining was a drop of milk: "Milk's full of moons", he said.

I had a curious experience of my own in hospital several years before I first read that story. I was there for the investigation of fits. During my stay, I was taken to a small room where the man and woman there offered me a choice between a moon and a star, to go at the end of my hospital bed. I chose a moon, which seemed to surprise the woman, who told me she thought that a star would be much better. But I stuck to my original request, buttons were pressed and the cardboard moon was produced from a machine. It was a silver crescent moon and before handing it to me, the woman used scissors to snip off the pointy ends, on the grounds that they were "sharp". When I repeated this story to my parents a number of years later, they told me that I had been full of medication and that it must have been a dream: a drug-induced dream indeed.

Another fairy tale is the tale of Lady Greensleeves - but the music is better known than the tale. It concerned two children who go on a quest to find their enchanted uncles. They are tempted on the way by a wicked equivalent of the child catcher who warns them of frogs in the water and offers them instead a goblet of milk "in which the rich cream floated". When they refuse, preferring on the advice of Lady Greensleeves, to drink water from the stream, their enemy angrily tips away the milk only to return later with an even more lavishly Blair goblet of wine.

But to return to the topic of milk. There is something drug-like about it. The way it can send babies into a stupor, followed by sleep. Perhaps it is the opaqueness. There is an episode of the Avengers in which the baddies introduce a mind-altering drug into milk bottles delivered by a fake milkman to various senior people in government. At a pivotal moment, Patrick Macnee's sidekick, the one whose name everyone forgets (NOT Diana Rigg and NOT Honor Blackman) is trapped in a glass churn of swirling cream desperately waiting to be rescued. When Steed finally saves her, she is caught like a fly in amber, in the middle of a gigantic block of butter.

I suppose, then, that milk is our first ever experience of food. Curiously flavourless while full of flavour: think of the difference between top of the milk and the rest of the bottle. Of the spoilsports who cheerfully tip the bottle on its end twice before opening it... Once there was gold top and silver top. One of my grandmothers, who I seem to recall buying sterilised milk, had the habit of not removing the silver top but instead piercing it and pouring the milk through the resulting hole.

Milk is something to be rejected instantly if its flavour goes wrong: I am thinking of milk that has gone only slightly sour. Like those triangular cartons or miniature one third of a pint milk bottles we had at school, both provided with a straw to poke through, left in their grey crates next to a warm radiator.

You can now buy in supermarkets bottles of creamy yellow Jersey milk. And in France, packets of Candia Frais with globules of cream amid the slightly sweet-tasting milk, which landed on and improved the arid texture of the shredded wheat. In St Tropez over breakfast outside our caravan, beneath the pine trees, we once noticed a solitary ant dragging a strand of the cereal that my brother had dropped from his bowl.

I also recall as a child reading one of the "Katie" books which refers to the evocative sound of "clinking ice in the milk-pitcher"; although cold milk is the way forward, I would be concerned about the ice diluting the milk.

Old enough to know better, I once attempted to make hot chocolate in Scotland by putting milk on to boil in an electric kettle. A funny smell resulted and the kettle was destroyed. That experiment over, one question continues to fascinate me. How would milk taste if it were put through a soda stream?

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