When I visited Ronnybrook Farm last summer, it was out of curiosity to see a big natural dairy brand. They had a store in the Chelsea Market, a presence in the Union Square Greenmarket, and their products were even available at Sobsey’s in Hoboken. Ronnybrook’s “beyond organic” milk was sold in quaint, impractical one liter glass bottles that seemed to hark from a bygone era. A good friend had worked at Ronnybrook for a few months. “Maybe Ronny will give me a tour if I say that I’m a friend of his apprentice,” I thought.
When we arrived in Ancramdale and followed the winding road across the fields dotted with grazing cows, Ronny’s farm seemed less and less like the huge factory operation that I had imagined. Ronny showed us his airy cow barn, the bottling operation, the butter churning machine, the yogurt making area. We spent some time discussing pasteurization processes, the homogenization of milk and glass bottles. Ronny’s views registered on me rather faintly. We played with Ronny’s calves that morning. Agastya, then three, and Vasisht, five months old, frolicked in the grass. We ate a pint of ice-cream and bought every flavor of ice-cream and yogurt to take home with us. Milk too, but I thought I was drinking very good quality milk already: Organic Valley, ultra pasteurized, homogenized, very “fresh” milk that usually lasted two months from the date of purchase.
In the fall, I met my husband’s friend who said that she found raw milk from her neighboring farm in Vermont easier to digest. I stared at her, having never met anyone who actually drank raw milk. We found neatly lined bottles of raw milk in the cooler at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown on a fall leaf-peeping trip. I bought the milk but gazed at it with trepidation for the days that it sat in my fridge. By this summer though, I had grown bolder. I brought raw milk back from the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY, and proceeded to make delicious chai from it every day. But raw milk was nearly impossible to find unless I visited a farm that sold it.
More recently I spotted nymilk and milk from Battenkill Valley Creamery at Eataly . These new brands made me curious. I found a write-up on nymilk at Serious Eats, that explained pasteurization methods. There was also a local New York milk taste test on Serious Eats where Ronnybrook and Battenkill had topped the charts. I was intrigued.
Then a friend sent me a blog post about how the best milk for human beings to drink, if they were to drink milk at all, would be raw whole milk that wasn’t ultra pasteurized or homogenized and that came from free-roaming, organic, grass-fed cows that were raised without artificial hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics. Not all of this immediately appeared to be based on scientific fact, but it made me think of those black and white cows grazing contentedly at Ronnybrook Farm. Of Ronny’s minimally pasteurized and non-homogenized milk. Of the taste tests that the milk seemed to be winning. Of that hard-to-find raw milk from Hawthorne Valley and Cricket Creek Farm.
I marched over to Sobsey’s and confronted the kindly proprietor. “I’ve been reading that ultra pasteurized milk isn’t really that great for you,” I began. “I thought the Organic Valley milk was better because it lasts longer.”
“The only milk I drink is from Ronnybrook Farm,” he replied. “In the days when we didn’t have a van, I would carry back the heavy glass bottles in the train for the store. High heat pasteurization kills everything in the milk, although it does help the milk to last longer.”
I brought home several bottles of Ronnybrook milk that afternoon and stockpiled them in my refrigerator. The milk tasted absolutely delicious: creamy, cold and straight from the bottle, with a lick of cream at the top. I hadn’t had a whole glass of milk since I escaped my mother in my late teens. Ronnybrook milk felt like an indulgence even though the milk tasted perhaps just as real milk should taste. The kind of milk that my Indian ancestors must have imbibed and loved. Enough to make them worship cows. The kind of milk that I’d like my children to drink. To make dollops of aromatic yellow ghee and creamy, food-for-gods desserts such as kheer.
Here is a recipe for kheer. It’s basically a sweet rice pudding that’s fragrant with cardamom and basmati rice, but those words sound too mundane for such a soul-filling bowl of goodness. This is Indian comfort food at its best.
Kheer (picture to come)
1 gallon of milk
1 cup of aromatic, long-grain rice like basmati, if possible from a recent harvest
2 cups, or less of turbinado or white sugar, according to taste
1 tbsp of ground cardamom seeds, preferably crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle
Optional: slivered almonds, a few strands of saffron, raisins, cashewnuts
1. Bring the milk to a rolling boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Wash the rice and add to the milk. Stir frequently to prevent the milk from coating the bottom of the pan. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, allowing the milk to boil until it reduces to about half of its original volume. The rice will be fully cooked by now.
2. Add the sugar to taste at this point. Since the sugar releases water, the kheer will need to cook down further. Allow the milk to boil down to about 1/3 the original volume. The kheer should have a thick consistency but should still be liquid enough to pour. Taste liberally along the way.
3. Remove from the flame and stir in the cardamom. Decorate with chopped nuts and saffron.
Eat as you like – hot, cold or at room temperature.