Milk in Europe and America: From Farmhouse to Factory Preindustrial Europe

In Europe, dairying took hold on land that supported abundant pasturage but was less suited to the cultivation of wheat and other grains: wet Dutch lowlands, the heavy soils of western France and its high, rocky central massif, the cool, moist British Isles and Scandinavia, alpine valleys in Switzerland and Austria.

With time, livestock were selected for the climate and needs of different regions, and diversified into hundreds of distinctive local breeds (the rugged Brown Swiss cow for cheesemaking in the mountains, the diminutive Jersey and Guernsey for making butter in the Channel Islands). Summer milk was preserved in equally distinctive local cheeses.

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By medieval times, fame had come to French Roquefort and Brie, Swiss Appenzeller, and Italian Parmesan. In the Renaissance, the Low Countries were renowned for their butter and exported their productive Friesian cattle throughout Europe.

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Until industrial times, dairying was done on the farm, and in many countries mainly by women, who milked the animals in early morning and afternoon and then worked for hours to churn butter or make cheese.

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Country people could enjoy good fresh milk, but in the cities, with confined cattle fed inadequately on spent brewers’ grain, most people saw only watered-down, adulterated, contaminated milk hauled in open containers through the streets. Tainted milk was a major cause of child mortality in early Victorian times.

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