I mentioned yesterday that I find Swiss milk really good. What makes it so? Maybe the fact that Swiss cows are happy cows, allowed to pasture freely in line with old-world methods? Yes, perhaps…but it also might be due to the fact that I am drinking milk which has undergone something called UHT processing.
I was first exposed to UHT milk in Italy in 2008. I had an epiphany along the lines of, “whoa, milk here isn’t refrigerated in the store. And it tastes amazingly good!” I assumed at the time that I was drinking whole milk, whose higher fat content would be responsible for its deliciousness.
But during my first shopping trip in Zürich (whereupon a lesson was learned: due to extremely oppressive crowds, do not shop at the Bahnhof grocery store – one of the only ones open in Zürich on Sunday – unless your life depends on it) I deliberately sought out lower-fat milk, and found 2.5% – close enough to the 2% we’re used to in Canada. Again, unrefrigerated. And again, after trying it, “whoa – this tastes too good.”
What these two milks have in common is UHT, or ultra-high temperature processing (also known as ultra-pasteurization). UHT milk is essentially sterilized so that it becomes shelf-stable for 6-9 months. This processing method is used widely throughout Europe (62.8% of the milk consumed in Switzerland is UHT; in France, the figure is 95.5%). There are some exceptions – UHT is eschewed by residents of the UK, for example, so along with North Americans, they instead consume milk that has undergone HTST (high temperature/short time) pasteurization and must always stay refrigerated.
According to Wikipedia (hey, it’s my blog – I’ll be a lazy researcher if I want to) UHT can alter taste through something called “Maillard browning,” which leads to a burnt taste, which apparently some consumers find unpleasant. Well, either the UHT milk here doesn’t taste this way, or I enjoy this taste.
In addition to tasting great (from my perspective, anyway, and I think I’m not alone in this — France, you feel me?) UHT might be an environmentally-friendly choice. Since the milk does not have to be kept cold in transport or in the store, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. This was in fact the rationale behind a 2008 proposal by the UK government to make most milk produced there UHT – a proposal that was ultimately squashed by consumers and the dairy industry, who proclaimed loudly that cold milk is good milk. Of course, it’s true that UHT milk does need to be refrigerated and consumed quickly after opening, just like any milk. It’s also the case (at least from what I’ve seen) that UHT is sold in Europe only in 1-liter containers, perhaps leading to a higher recycling burden. But, given small European appetites, the frequent shopping trips and the size of fridges here (mine fits under the stove), the smaller size does make sense. And then, as always, throw into the balance an anti-UHT faction claiming that it’s bad for you.
So what do you think, my North American family members? Would you be
willing to go UHT? I guess I have to experiment more with the 28% of non-UHT milk in Switzerland before I decide what I’ll be drinking long-term.
Oh, and bonus points to anyone who wants to guess what the litre of “Bio” (i.e., organic) UHT milk pictured here costs, in Swiss Francs (roughly equivalent to Canadian dollars).