Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

milk is the most versatile of all foods. Fresh milk and products made from it (cream, butter, buttermilk, whey, all kinds of cheese, and innumerable soured milk products such as yoghurt and sour cream) are widely used in the cuisines of large areas of the world. Milk has long been held in high esteem for its nutritious quality, which even in pre-scientific days was apparent from the fact that it provided complete nourishment for young animals and humans.

The oldest known record of animals being kept in herds and milked is a series of cave paintings in the Libyan Sahara, showing milking and perhaps cheese-making too, and possibly older than 5000 bc. The Sumerians, around 3500 bc, and the Egyptians a few centuries later used milk and have left reliefs and records showing that they prepared curdled milk products. Archaeologists have identified as critical the broadening of the use of newly domesticated animals (as part of the birth of agriculture) from mere meat to their secondary products of milk, wool, transport, and traction. This was a gradual process, occurring in the 3rd and 4th millennia bc, although milk residues have been identified in Anatolian pottery dating from much earlier than that.