Candida Crewe

The utter horror of UHT milk

Candida Crewe has narrated this article for you to listen to.

On a trip to Italy via Paris last month, my travelling companion and I went to the Gare de Lyon at sparrows to catch a train to Rome. We badly wanted coffee.

I came to coffee late in life and am infantile and uncool in my love of frothy buckets of what is effectively a hot coffee milkshake. It is almost all about the milk, preferably whole and organic but, at the very least, fresh. So it was that Starbucks – which uses conventional milk in the UK – twinkling
and open in the middle of the freezing station, made the heart lift.

I recognised in my childhood that the French did everything better than us except for two things: loos and milk

I took one sip and nearly spat it out. That inimitable taste and stench of UHT, or ultra-high temperature processed milk, made me heave. Coffee snobs who complain about disgusting coffee may be blaming the wrong element of their flat white.

Pasteurised milk, which has an official shelf life of four to six days (but in reality, lasts several days longer), is heated to no more than 70°C. This kills off bacteria to the extent that it prevents people getting stomach bugs. But the 135°C demanded of UHT desecrates every bug, several enzymes and a few vitamins besides. This means UHT milk doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and an unopened carton will last till your dotage (OK, nine months), but it also wipes out the whole joy of milk’s original incarnation and transforms it – and in turn your coffee – into something monstrous.

I have no beef with the Starbucks bean. But that morning, the milk threw me straight back to my childhood holidays in France. I recognised then that the French did everything better than we did except for two things: loos (those urine-drenched Yeti footprints with a hole in between them over which you had to squat) and milk. They may have mastered mousseline de grenouille and mocked our Spotted Dick, but even devoted Francophiles like me knew that their milk was rat’s piss.

Theories are that the bastardisation of the taste might be caused by Maillard browning, the chemical reaction normally associated with turning food brown. This works wonders with seared steaks, biscuits, bread, peanuts, whisky – and French fries and coffee beans indeed. But the complex interplay, caused by high heat, between amino acids and the reduction of sugars which creates the compounds that make some things delicious is, in my snooty opinion, ruinous when it comes to milk.

The ultra-zapping is a more advanced form of its gentler predecessor, pasteurisation, which was invented in Lille by Louis Pasteur in the 1880s. So UHT was indirectly invented by the French, though it was not widely available till after the aseptic containers in which it must be stored (and which made Tetra Pak immortal) were invented. Even so, what on earth induces the French – and indeed so many other European countries – to put up with such pap and not start another revolution?

French loos have improved, but French milk manifestly has not. Odd, considering that France has the biggest dairy industry in Europe after Germany, that their landscape and weather are conducive to dairy production, and that the French are the world’s leading consumers of dairy products per capita. Dairy Global states that France produced 1,794 billion litres of cow’s milk last August  alone, presumably in its raw form every bit as delicious as our own. It is the only country on the planet boasting 1,200 different types of cheese, butter and cream, often from raw unpasteurised milk, since pasteurised doesn’t work for lots of cheeses. France has about 60,000 dairy farms and many of its products display a recognised quality label. But its actual milk, in its ubiquitously ultra-treated form, deserves no such accolades. Granted, in French supermarkets you can lay your hands on the odd bottle of fresh milk these days, but their default milk remains UHT.

In Britain raw milk, though still niche, has become a thing among the wellbeing crowd

I asked Jane Scotter, the distinguished owner of Fern Verrow, a biodynamic farm in Herefordshire, and head market gardener at Heckfield Park Farm near Basingstoke. She was partner for 16 years at Neal’s Yard Dairy. ‘The French don’t eat breakfast,’ she says. ‘I think maybe because they drink a lot so might be hungover. They have black coffee. They don’t drink milk or have porridge and cereal like we do. It’s all about a big lunch. The French are obsessed with their health but don’t value normal milk enough. They save it for their cheese.’

As for British milk: ‘In British supermarkets, it can be poor quality but it’s still better than UHT. My personal theory is that people who are lactose intolerant are less allergic to the milk itself than to the poor quality of so much of it. Milk isn’t dangerous but it is volatile. Unless there’s some crisis, there’s no chance we’ll take UHT up wholeheartedly in this country.’

Scotter believes sales of quality milk are on the rise. Raw – unpasteurised – milk, though still niche, has become a thing among the wellbeing crowd. The global organic milk industry is set to be worth $32.8 billion in 2032, up from $23.2 billion in 2022, according to Future Market Insights.

Meanwhile in France, the market share last year for Frankenstein milk, as opposed to even bog-standard pasteurised fresh milk, stood at 95 per cent, according to the Centre National Interprofessionnel de l’Economie Laitière. Fresh milk, organic or not, is available, but the French persist with their baffling preference, and they are by no means the only ones. Fresh milk accounts for only 33 per cent of total liquid milk sales in Italy and a derisory 2 per cent in Spain.

To give this lot their due, UHT is practical, economically sensible and increasingly necessary as a means of feeding the world safely, especially in rural and remote regions, because it doesn’t require refrigeration during transportation or at home (until after it’s been opened). And, by God, the stuff lasts. The execrable taste does, however, remain a sticking point for populations in some hot countries, most notably the sensible and discerning Greeks, who tend to drink more fresh milk. 

It may seem logical that colder nations choose fresh milk because they have that luxury. Very few people buy UHT milk in Sweden or Denmark and, while it is available in Finnish supermarkets, it’s not something people regularly consume.

It is somewhat surprising that UHT never caught on in the USA. The world’s leading UHT processor, Parmalat, tried to introduce it to the US market in 1993, and it effectively tanked, which is odd considering that Americans are hardly notable for eschewing ultra-processed food. But that is to underestimate the closeness of their relationship with their Tardis-sized fridges, and their ingrained habit of drinking cold fresh milk, as Scotter observes, ‘because they think it makes them grow’. They are wary of milk that can live in a cupboard.

The brains wishing to peddle UHT keep trying to wean us onto it. They began selling it in normal-looking milk packaging and put it in the chiller aisles. It still couldn’t disguise what they call the ‘high cooked’ – but I would call the synthetic sulphur – flavour. They’ve fiddled with it a bit and tried several methods (such as adding a compound to the milk before furnacing it) to minimise the demonic taste and smell. And, I suppose, just as a child comes to like broccoli in the end, market forces and technical tweaks have encouraged people to become accustomed to UHT’s convenience and, in turn, desensitised to its nastiness.

So to travel by train to and from Italy, ordering coffee along the way in France and Switzerland, is to play a game of latte roulette. Geneva’s Starbucks: fresh milk; Basle’s station cafés: all UHT (and incomprehension at requests for lait frais: ‘Oui, c’est frais!’ The hell it was!). Thankfully, fresh milk is still to be found in cafés in Rome and Milan, less so in Bari. My European jaunt was in every respect bliss, except for the milk. There is a lot wrong with Britain, but I will say this: we still win gold for our gold top.