Beverage of ChampionsOctober 24, 2006 at 2:41 pm | Posted in food | 14 Comments
In his essay, Le vin et le lait, Le bifteck et les frites, Barthes writes:
[Milk] is now the true anti-wine… because in the basic morphology of substances milk is the opposite of fire by all the denseness of its molecules, by the creamy, and therefore soothing, nature of its spreading. Wine is mutilating, surgical, it transmutes and delivers; milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores. Moreover, its purity, associated with the innocence of the child, is a token of strength, of a strength which is not revulsive, not congestive, but calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality.
Barthes, as usual, is not really talking about the physical or chemical properties of milk versus wine, but of their mythological properties: what do these emblems represent in our culture? Barthes draws the slightly obvious conclusion that wine is important to the French because it represents pleasure, time with friends, and refined appreciation. Milk, on the other hand, represents strength and health and being a good person (think about it: What would Superman drink?), and thus appeals more to Americans and, mysteriously, the Dutch.
Well, call me literal minded, but I think there is a factor missing from this analysis: taste. Everyone knows that wine tastes different in different countries — and if the French were suddenly to find every one of their caves à vins filled with American inventions like White Zin or Boones Farm, they might indeed be less enthusiastic about their national beverage.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that milk varies a great deal from country to country as well. We Americans, we think we know milk: it’s creamy, mild, not too much flavor — a suitable accompaniment to cookies, cereal, and even a good steak. (My grandfather drank milk with dinner every night, kosher laws be damned.) In France, however, milk is… well, sour. To my palate, a newly opened bottle of fresh French milk smells and tastes a lot like the two-week old American version.*
This makes a considerable cultural difference. In France, kids rarely drink plain, cold milk, even with sweets. Instead, they drink a lot of hot chocolate or sweetened milk, and they get the rest of their calcium from the delicious cheeses that abound in this country. Cold cereal is a tough sell here, and people who claim to enjoy an occasional glass of milk are looked upon with some degree of suspicion.
As I’ve straddled these two culture my whole life, I’ve generally kept to social convention: milk in America, wine in France. Lately, though, I’ve found that my adult palate has developed a… well, if not a taste for French milk, then at least a tolerance.
Just as my childhood taste for sweet, uncomplicated milk chocolate has evolved into a preference for the subtle bitterness of dark chocolate, maybe I’m ready for a slightly more expressive style of milk. Yes, French milk is sour, and I still wouldn’t drink it on its own. But I have found lately that, much to my surprise, it does compliment my dark chocolate bar rather nicely.
*On the other end of the spectrum, did you know that Scandinavia has truly amazing milk? It’s far sweeter and creamier than anything you’d find in America. When I lived there, I drank a liter or two every day. There’s not much worth eating in Denmark, but the milk alone can transform a bowl of cornflakes into a rapturous experience.
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