Beverage of Champions

October 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.

lait et chocolat

*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.



  1. I’ll stick with wine. 😉

  2. I had never thought of this. The smell of milk is indeed why I don’t drink it. Isn’t that funny…

  3. Alison –
    Don’t worry, there is plenty of wine being drunk around here. But even I feel a little embarrassed uncorking a bottle at breakfast time.

  4. I just drink water. How boring am I? 😛

  5. But Robyn, there are so many different kinds of water! Bubbly or flat? Perrier or San Peligrino? Evian or Volvic? 😉

    Of course, Paris also has excellent tap water.

  6. Actually, Amy, if I’m not mistaken I think the milk that most people drink here on a daily basis is the pasteurized UHT stuff that you can buy on a supermarket shelf, at room temperature — “long-conservation” I think is how they refer to it, so you can keep more bottles of it at hand, a stock of milk for the coming days… (!UGH!) And that, to my mind, is the sour stuff — I can’t bear it either, and I’ve honestly NEVER been able to get used to it! But I gradually started buying fresh milk in the cream department of the supermarket, right near the crème fraiche, and I’ve never turned back… This is the closest thing to the milk we’re used to at home, I think, although I imagine the real deal in the countryside, on a farm, is even better!

    But I understand the fresh milk and cookies cravings — I get those from time to time, too, and I even crave good ol’ American cereals! I’ve become addicted to Jordan’s Country Crisp in chocolate flavor; it’s the best with lait frais demi-écrémé!

  7. Alice –
    It’s true, I didn’t even go into the “long conservation” milk… In my mind, that stuff is just an offence against nature, so I never go near it.

    I buy fresh milk from the dairy section, but it still tastes “off” to me. I think the cows are just different — my little theory is that bad milk makes terrific cheese, which is why American cheeses are never quite as good as French ones. But I’m no expert.

  8. you mght enjoy this blog – I have been enjoying it very much and wishing I were in Paris:

  9. Emily –

    Thanks for the recommendation, but if you glance a few comments up, you’ll see that Robyn and I are practically old friends!

    I did, however, just realize that wordpress seems to have eaten my reply to her comment. Plus, I need to add her to my blogroll… I’ll go do that now.

  10. Robyn –

    Ah, but what kind of water? Sparkling or flat? Perrier or San Peligrino? Evian or Volvic? 😉

    Of course, Paris also has excellent tap water.

  11. In Germany, milk was like 9000% fat, and it was too creamy even for me. Iceland’s whole milk though is just about perfect, as far as milk goes.

    I’m very fussy about my milk – anything less than 2% is too watery. I don’t think I’d do well with the French version on a regular basis, but why would I care? I’d be in France!

  12. Sonja –
    Yes, there are definitely compensations. Who needs milk when you’ve got three hundred different kinds of cheese? Plus, the yogurt is better here.

  13. Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, Amy — it’s an offence against nature, you’re absolutely right! Wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, as my mom would say…

    I guess that means that I’ve gradually gotten used to the fresh milk in the dairy section myself. And as a result of your milk and cookies post, I couldn’t resist having both milk and cookies myself last night after getting home from the theater! How funny…

    On the other hand, in most cases I would agree with Alison: wine is definitely my first beverage of choice, especially here in France! But guess it all depends on the mood.

  14. Haha, we’re like old friends! Who have never met!

    I like flat water (I love it when one of my friends asks for water with gas…I’m not used to hearing it that way) and I’ve become accustomed to drinking everything out of the faucet here. I’m not dead yet! Wee! Otherwise I like Poland Spring (is that an east coast thing?) and PELLEGRINO if I’m in a gassy mood. Mmm.

  15. […] I’ve mentioned before that, due to the sour milk, the French are not too big on breakfast cereal. It does exist, however, and believe it or not, it actually tends more toward the sugary end of the spectrum than even American cereals. […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: