Cheese is well known to give people bad dreams. But can Dairy take you into another world?
Any shaman’s voyage into another world starts with a trance-like state. When we are babies, we drink milk. This milk either ends up thrown up and coagulated on our mother’s shoulder, or it is consumed and it nourishes us. The first milk, the thick and rich colostrum, gives us the necessary antibodies and helps our immune system. Our Mother’s milk calms and soothes us and puts us to sleep.
Making cheese is another trance-inducing process because it is an inherently rhythmic one - inoculating the milk and adding the rennet into a huge, cauldron-like vat. Then the slow stirring of the curd, often with one other person, both arm-deep in curds and whey. My boss at a New Zealand artisan dairy used to call this stirring ‘tuning into the curd’ which meant relying on feel to know when to drain the whey off and press the curds into a cheese, rather than relying on a recipe.
On the farm, before any cheese is made, the rhythm of milking the cow-da dum da dum da dum da dum- is another trance-inducing ritual. Every day in the dairy, the cheesemaker will experience cream rising to the top of the milk, raw milk clabbering into a natural starter, the yeast-like fungus Geotrichum Candidum sprouting its white fur on a young cheese and then turning it into toad skin. Kiss the toad skin of the cheese and it might not turn into Prince Charming but it will yield a liquefied cream line, oozing flavour. Who needs a prince when you have toad skinned cheese? All of this is magic.
Almost every single person I meet quotes the Monty Python line ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ at me after I reveal myself to be a cheesemaker. It got annoying until I realised it was true. The revelation came to me whilst making cheese with Benedictine nuns at The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. One of the sisters had worked in New York City as a cheesemaker before joining the order. We were talking about life, God and cheese with our arms elbow deep, stirring curds and whey for their famous natural rind, semi hard cheese (similar to a Saint Nectaire cheese), when she turned to me and said, “At some point, I realised that I didn’t know if it was cheese I was searching for, or God.” That comment pops up in my head every time I am on my own stirring curds.
On a micro dairy I worked at in Wales, one volunteer turned to appeasing ‘the churn demon’ by placing a glass of chocolate milk next to it before making butter. One day, the cream just would not transform into butter. It simply wouldn’t thicken. Pragmatically speaking, it was a hot day which explains why the butter wouldn’t churn. But when another woman started churning and we heard that lovely sound of the butter clunking in the churn, we couldn’t help but feel that this woman had a divine gift. It turns out that our thoughts weren’t so strange after all. By appeasing a demon and believing that some people possess a sort of divine dairy gift we were just continuing a long history of folklore surrounding dairy products. In Irish folklore there is such a thing as a ‘butter witch’- a witch with the ability to magically divert cow’s milk from a neighbouring homestead to their own. The witch would prosper, and the hard-working farmer would be left with nothing. There were a lot of preventative measures that could be taken against these witches. Braiding the cow’s tails, sprinkling holy water, keeping a cinder or iron tongs near the churn were all ways of warding off butter witches. Another term that crops up is ‘butter luck’, which referred to the gift some women had at making butter. I reckon cold hands are the key to butter luck (mine are too hot) although my hot hands are useful when working curd for cheese.
The Tuareg nomads of the Ahaggar (Algerian Sahara), for whom camel milk remains a staple, have a saying, “Water is the soul; milk is life.” Indeed, what is now recognised as ‘the Sistine Chapel of cave art’, the cave paintings at Lascaux, near Les Eyzies in France, show paleolithic depictions of cattle, some with large udders, suggesting that early humans were milking animals so long ago. Making cheese means doing something inherently human. More recent cave paintings in the Libyan Sahara (5500–2000 BC) and Sumerian relief and stamp seals (3500–2800 BC) clearly show milk processing. Remains of cheese has been found in pots from ancient Egypt (3000–2800 BC). 
Marie Antoinette's pleasure dairy
Can the dairy be an oasis, an escape from our troubles? Marie Antoinette was fond of dressing up as a dairymaid and making cheese in her laiterie d’agrement or pleasure dairy on the grounds of Versailles. It was part of a utopian hamlet complete with cottages that gave the impression of the place being deep in the countryside rather than the grounds of Versailles. The Queen and her ladies in waiting would dress up as dairymaids and make cheese and butter. However, as any cheesemaker knows, cheesemaking requires a lot of cleaning and often heavy lifting, and the Queen had real dairymaids at the more functional laiterie de preparation where useful quantities of cheese were made properly for consumption.  Cheesemakers suffer from complaints like varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, bad backs, haemorrhoids and even the dreaded ‘cheesemaker’s lung’, which one gets from spending too much time in cheese caves where the dust that cheese mites leave behind infiltrates the lungs. Playing at being a dairymaid is one thing, but varicose veins and haemorrhoids don’t fit the dream of frolicking around a dairy in a beautiful dress that the Queen obviously had. Although, I would highly encourage anyone who does fancy frolicking around a dairy in a gorgeous dress. Haemorrhoids aside, it is the perfect way to spend a day.
Can cheesemaking get rid of our sins?
The author Jean Jaques Rousseau led a public campaign encouraging aristocratic women to return to their country estates and pleasure dairies to cleanse themselves of the impurities and wanton values of the city.
It is no wonder milk is so linked to the divine. People all over the world survive, and thrive, on dairy. Without food or fuel to produce enough salt to preserve meat in, Icelandic people would preserve meat in a barrel full of whey. In Tibetan medicine, the butter in tea takes it from an ordinary drink to a magical one – it is regarded to give mind-body balance. The stability and free labour of European Monasteries made them perfect places to develop a plethora of long aged cheeses, where the skill of the monks and nuns meant they were able to turn out consistently delicious cheeses, and the natural rhythm of working and praying is incredibly well suited to the patience-requiring processes of cheesemaking. In these monasteries and abbeys, the Christian promise of the land of milk and honey was realised- ‘to bring them out from the land of Egypt into a land that I had selected for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands.’ 
The milk snatching archetype in the British psyche
Indeed, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learnt about the divine properties of milk the hard way: She is infamously known as ‘Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ after she scrapped free school milk for over 7s as part of a campaign of cuts to meet election pledges on taxes. Failing to respect milk’s nourishment that would assist in children’s learning has transported her the opposite way- not into the divine but ridiculed and hated, she even had a possible honorary degree rejected by Oxford university for her cuts to education (which includes the milk scrapping.) All milk is composed of sugars, fat, protein, minerals, vitamins and enzymes which make it a highly nutritious food. 
Raw milk, perhaps stored in an animal skin or left to its own devices in any vessel with thicken with the help of abundant cultures in unpasteurised milk. Drinks or yoghurts like Villi or Piima from Scandinavia, Gariss from Sudan, Shubhat or Chaal from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) called Kefir, which has the extra-magic property of visible grains that multiply. The grains go from white to purple when they are dried, and can be brought back to life when rehydrated in milk. In Francis Pryor’s book Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, he says that ‘analysis of fat residues on Beakers found in graves shows that many had contained milky drinks…many of the urns from burials were in fact domestic cooking utensils that were only pressed into service as cremation containers after a life of use in the kitchen. Milk is was clearly important enough for its vessels to be used as cremation containers; the milk vessel itself enveloping you as you go to a place beyond. Indeed, ‘bog butter’ found buried in Ireland’s peat bogs, were first thought to be buried for storage and accidentally left there until they found more and more. No one in their right mind would misplace that much delicious butter but they might well offer it to the Gods. The land of milk and honey exists, and we are living in it. It is time for us to embrace and respect dairy as a portal to the divine.