Little Miss Muffet, one can only presume, was a precocious child but one who nevertheless was happy to sit down on a tuffet to eat her curds and whey. Not so today’s little Miss Muffets. If one were to come along with a bowl of curd or whey they would make a run for it faster than if a big, fat spider were to sit down next to them.
I have no idea when this nursary rhyme first appeared in the English language but what I can say for sure is that when it first slipped out of the mouth of the mother or nurse looking after their child fermented dairy products were as common as sugary soda drinks are today. In the absence of refrigeration fresh dairy produce will ferment spontaneously, typically within 24 hours. As a result most populations would have drunk non-heated, raw and fermented milk quite happily. The moment milk – be it cows, goat or mare’s milk – ferments and turns acidic it becomes much harder for pathogenic bacteria to survive in the milk medium. The naturally present LABs are brilliant at inhibiting the growth and colonisation of pathogenic bacteria so most populations living outside of the large industrialised cities would have been naturally protected from harmful micro-organisms without the need to either pasteurise or sterilise the fresh milk.
One of the consequences of spontaneous dairy fermentation is that the milk solids begin to separate from the liquid resulting in curds and whey. Earlier generations would have retained the whey, diluted it with water and drunk it. The solid curd was used for any number of purposes – not least to make cheese. It was also used as a spread with bread or to turn into a cheese-cake. To read more about curds & whey see below, after the recipe …
Soured milk, or buttermilk, or yoghurt, or fromage blanc, or fromage frais, or kefir etc.
Place a cheese cloth or a tea-towel over a sieve or colander. Rest the sieve over a bowel. Pour the soured milk or yoghurt etc. into the sieve.
Tie the cheese cloth or tea towel into a knot and leave to rest anywhere from six to ten hours.
After the resting period the whey will have drained into the bowl and the curd will be resting in the cheese cloth or tea-towel.
Use the whey to drink with diluted water or to use in the preparation of lacto-fermented food and drinks. Use the curds for making cheese, as a spread over sliced bread or for a cheese-cake recipe.
The sotry behind curds & whey cont…
Whilst it was once common to drink and eat fermented airy produce the opposite is true today. Most of us consume pasteurised fresh milk that can stay fresh for up to three to four days. As a result many are completely unattuned to what were once familiar sour flavours with the end result that we now gag at the thought of drinking soured dairy products rather than relishing them as we once did. A whole swathe of food which was once brimming with natural, beneficial bacteria and enzymes has thus been completely eliminated from our diet which may explain why so many are suffering from the relatively new syndrome of “sterile gut”.
Today many households discard their milk as soon as it begins to ferment convinced that it has “gone off” when in actual fact it is just doing what it has been doing since time immemorial – fermented. The LABs present in the air and in the milk begin to consume the sugar lactose and then excrete lactic acid and other anti-microbial substances. For their part, the enzymes begin to process the proteins such as casein rendering the dairy beverage or food more digestible.
Whilst it is true that pasteurised or homogenised milks are not so successful at spontaneous fermentation and are best discarded fresh raw milk ferments quickly giving much more successful results. Many countries, including Belgium, are forbidden by law to sell raw milk so it can be hard if not impossible to source. If you can get hold of raw milk from a reputable farmer with a vetinary certified herd of healthy, grass-fed dairy cattle it is really worthy trying to purchase it.
By applying simple, traditional techniques the home cook can incorporate curds and whey into any number of dishes. The whey is especially useful for lacto-fermentation. The liquid whey is a natural inoculant literally brimming with beneficial, lactic acid excreting LABs. A couple of table-spoons of whey added to a fermentation crock will give the LABs a head-start resulting in the successful fermentation of many dishes.