Why don’t we consume dairy products from mammals that aren’t cows?
As for sheep’s milk, almost no one in the United States or anywhere else drinks it straight. It has twice the fat of cow's milk and human milk, making it too rich to be very appealing as a beverage. This fattiness endears it to the world’s artsier cheesemakers, who find in sheep’s milk a profound communicator of terroir.
“The sheep people are a weird bunch,” says one chef, who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to offend his favorite cheesemaker. “Sheep are difficult to raise, and fickle. You don't get much yield, and the cheese isn't that popular, so you're talking about an eccentric person. It's very difficult.”
Unpalatable fat and protein levels keep some milks off the shelves, but the difficulty of milking recalcitrant beasts can be no less an obstacle. Consider water buffalo, which are raised in Campania, Italy, to make the otherworldly mozzarella di bufala but are otherwise little known in the West. Water buffalo are smart and watchful and have giant horns—in other words, they’re dangerous—yet their milk has been a cornerstone of the most dairy-crazed cuisine in the world, that of India, for 1,000 years. Indian cooks use buffalo milk in cream sauces, boil and coagulate it for paneer, or reduce it to a paste called khoa that becomes the basis for desserts such as the rosewater-sweetened gulab jamun. The low availability of water-buffalo milk in the United States limits how authentic an Indian meal you can hope to have, and a few dairies are trying to fill the niche, but water buffalo are difficult animals for noobs to deal with. One Wisconsin dairyman (a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli military) who had acquired a herd of dairy buffalo told a newspaper that milking them was more difficult than leading troops into war.
Camel’s milk, which is sometimes the only source of water in the arid climates of the Middle East and parts of Africa, isn’t much easier to obtain. Gil Riegler, who runs the Oasis Camel Dairy in Ramona, Calif., says a typical camel produces around two gallons of milk a day in two 90-second long bursts and only while a calf is in the act of nursing (from a different teat). And once you’ve got the milk, you can’t do much with it other than drink it. The low-solid content of camel’s milk means it cannot be processed into butter or cheese without high-tech intervention.
Nonetheless, Riegler (who has yet to secure to necessary Agriculture Department permits to sell his milk) is a great believer in the product: “Where camel milk is available,” he asserts, “people will prefer to drink it.” He says camel's milk contains insulin and can improve quality of life for diabetics (seems legit) and cites stories about it treating autism (does not). To aid in water retention, camels consume about eight times as much sodium as cows, so their milk can be weirdly salty, but it can also be sweet. On Bizarre Foods America, Andrew Zimmern sipped some of Riegler's milk and pronounced it “fantastic.” But the fact that camel’s milk was on a show called Bizarre Foods makes a prima facie case that the American palate may not be quite ready for it.
And pig’s milk, alas, is also not quite ready for the American palate. With a little effort, I tracked down the chef I heard about at Whole Foods, the one who's trying to make pig's cheese. It's Edward Lee of Louisville's 610 Magnolia and Top Chef. “Anyone who farms pigs would say that pigs' milk would make an incredible cheese,” he says. “The problem is that it's nearly impossible to milk pigs. When sows are lactating, they get very aggressive. They're not docile like cows. They're smart, skittish, suspicious, and paranoid. They do not like you to get up in their business.”
Lee managed to accumulate a few jars' worth of pigs' milk, from which he made half a cup of pig ricotta that he says was delicious. Getting even such a small amount of milk required jackal-like derring-do: Lee crept up on the sows while they were sleeping, frantically pinched at their tiny nipples, then ran away when they woke up and started to freak out.
If only there were an industry that made pig-milking machines.
“What we've discovered,” says Lee, “uh, what we've concluded, you know, is basically that the machine that would fit a pig's teat is a human breast pump. It fits perfectly.”
Benjamin Phelan is a writer living in Louisville, Ky.