Italian Milk

It’s the Little Things That Surprise You

When you move to a foreign country, you expect (if you are wise) that the food will be different from what you’re used to. For the adventurous this is a welcome change, a chance to explore new flavors and habits (though sometimes you also crave the taste of home, wherever that is for you).

It takes you by surprise, though, when even the basics are different.

When I was a kid, milk was simple. In Bangkok, the Foremost milk truck came to our house once a week. It was a huge refrigerated vehicle with thick little doors on the sides that opened to disgorge wonderful things: milk in orange and white cartons, ice cream, and fudgesicles. I don’t know if Foremost even had a skimmed milk option in those days; I don’t remember ever seeing it.

In the US, milk came in the same paper cartons and in big white plastic gallon jugs. We always bought gallons, and the jug was always finished before the milk went bad, in part because I drank it so fast. But even as I got older and drank less milk (when I returned to the US for college), I still bought gallons, and it never went bad.

One of the first things that surprised me in Italian food shops was the size of the milk: it came in half-liter or liter Tetra pak bricks, nothing larger. A family of three or four, especially with small kids, would easily go through one or more liters a day, and one of the cliches of Italian family life is someone having to run out to a neighborhood shop early in the morning to get milk for the family breakfast (tall, steaming mugs of hot milk, with the kids having a drop of coffee in it Рcaff̩ latte Рeven from very young ages).

So why wasn’t milk available in larger packages? I soon found out: it goes bad incredibly quickly. Once opened, a carton has to be finished in a day or two, three if you really push it. I initially blamed this on the packaging: the only way to open a Tetra pak brick is to cut or rip a corner off it. This can make for messy pouring (depending on the cut you make and whether you are able to hold the full brick without squeezing), and then the carton can’t be closed again in any meaningful way. At least American-style half-gallon milk cartons fold in on themselves to protect their contents.

A few years after we moved to Milan, innovations in milk packaging began to appear on supermarket shelves: round Tetra pak cartons with screw-on lids, American-style fold-in cartons (though only in a half- or one-liter size, the latter very similar to an American quart carton), and plastic bottles. At least one ecologically-minded company offered returnable glass bottles, but that didn’t last long.

However, even in resealable packaging, the milk still went bad quickly. I guess we drink less than the average Italian family. It tasted different, too. Better, worse, I don’t know – it wasn’t like the American milk I was used to, but it was certainly drinkable, and anyway I was drinking far less than I had in childhood.

But I do like milk in my coffee, and with the cereal I sometimes eat (Ross practically lives on Special K, which tastes far better in Italy than in its native land, interestingly). I’m a disorganized shopper at best, and, especially where we live now, running out in the morning to grab some milk is not an option. So trying to keep fresh milk in the house is a constant irritant.

An alternative you have probably thought of, if you’ve lived anywhere outside the US in your lifetime, is UHT milk: the ultra-high temperature process it’s subjected to gives it a shelf life of months. But it tastes horrid, and some brands worse than others. I know people who drink it all the time and are happy. I could never get used to it.

Lately there’s a new kid on the block, micro-filtered milk. I don’t know what exactly micro-filtering consists in, but the flavor is excellent and it keeps for weeks. (Maybe this is the process they’ve been using in the US all along?) This is now my milk of choice, when I can find it. Stores aren’t stocking it much yet, perhaps because the public is suspicious. Our friend Michele, who used to own a bakery (and bakeries always sell milk for those early morning breakfast emergencies), said his customers wouldn’t buy it.

I do, whenever I can. It’s so nice to be able to stock up and know that I don’t have to think about buying milk for a while!

May 10 – One of the commenters on this article wondered why you can’t buy milk in Italy in a reseable one-gallon plastic jug. Aside from the aforementioned spoilage problem, there’s also a problem of space: Italian refrigerators are much smaller than American ones, reflecting the fact that Italians shop more often, and their homes are smaller. Even in our big new house, the “big” new refrigerator we bought is only 60 cm wide.

Many American fridges these days are built with very deep doors where big beverage bottles and jugs can be stored for easy access. In Italy, it can be difficult to fit a two-liter bottle anywhere at all.

What food surprises have you encountered in a new country?

16 thoughts on “Italian Milk

  1. Sara - Piperita

    Milk in Italy is not very good… As butter… I ever understood why…
    In england milk was much better, and it’s true it lasted longer…
    Nonetheless, in England there were awful yogurts, but terrific creams (in Italy we sell just one king of fresh cream…)…
    France has developed a peculiar taste for milky!creamy dessert: there are far more industrial one size desserts in French supermarkets, than anywhere I’ve been…
    That’s all I suppose: I’m thinking what there was so different in Mexico, but nothing came up…
    🙂

  2. Typesetter

    Microfiltered milk was discussed on it.hobby.cucina years ago, when it first appeared. Essentially, the milk is first skimmed somehow, than the liquid part is filtered in order to remove a highier hnumber and wider spectrum of bacteria and spores that would be removed by simple pasteurization, and finally the cream is returned to the milk and somehow /by purely mechanical means) it’s homogenized to the liquid fraction. A fourth type of milk for sale is “latte crudo”, raw milk. Itìs quite hard to find it because it’s milk not treated at all, just squeezed out of the cow. It must be drank very fast and it is often bottled on the spot. The farms that produce raw milk go through an extra set of hygiene and veterinary checks to make sure that their totally untreated milk is healthy.

  3. Luca Sartoni

    My best surprise was milk (as well) while i was staying in New Zealand. The taste was great, very different from our italian small-packeted milk.

    Onother big surprise was about cheese. I was used to choose between dozen of different kind of cheese when i went to an italian supermarket; in New Zealand there were only two or three kind of cheese and every one had the same taste: …cheddar…

  4. vangie

    Things haven’t changed much in the US for over 40 years in terms of milk processing. Pasteurized milk, specifically “HTST”, or High-Temperature-Short-Time, is what you typically get at the store. It’s heated to something short of the boiling point, and the aim is to reduce the pathogen count, not eliminate it.

    UHT milk is also available,is labeled as such, but I’ve never seen it where I buy milk. I buy gallons at Costco that are usually dated to expire 2-3 weeks in the future.

    When I worked in Cameroon and Indonesia, I loved the typical – and only practical – coffee accompaniment of sweetened condensed milk. But I only had that stuff in my coffee…could not imagine diluting and drinking it.

    But since you asked about food surprises in general, I’ll throw this one in. I love buttercream frosting, and was really missing my occasional bakery treat when I worked in Medan, Sumatra. When I’d learned enough Bahasa Indonesia to venture around town by myself, I found a “Dutch” bakery with the loveliest pastries and small cakes in the display case. The piped ruffles of buttercream frosting made me salivate in anticipation. Once home, I bit into the first lovely confection and gagged. Salty! Rancid? I tried another, and another. BLECH!!! After some inquiries, I learned that chicken fat is often used locally as shortening, even in bakery goods.

  5. Timoti

    I’m used to 1 gallon containers of milk from costco and acme. I can’t stand how in the supermercato or at the iper it’s impossible to find anything larger than a liter of milk. I mean Italy isn’t a third world country, isn’t their technology up to snuff with American milk producers? Is it that hard to offer milk in sealable plastic containers? sometimes Italy makes me laugh.

  6. Typesetter

    Timoti, a liter of milk lasts for several days already in most Italian families. About 50% of Italians are lactose intolerant (or rather lactase deficient) and even those who are not hardly drink milk at all. Children and sometimes oldre adults may have a cup of caffelatte in the morning, but most people just add a few drops of milk to their coffee or occasionally use milk for cooking (baking, making bechamel sauce for gratins, making puddings or similar stuff that hardly use more than half a liter of it). Larger than liter bottles would hardly have any market in Italy.

  7. Sarah

    I´ve previously lived in the US, Italy, and Scotland, and while I´m not much of a cow milk drinker (I prefer soy milk), I found the milk to be good in all of them. However, I now live in Chile where the ONLY milk available is UHT milk. I say this seriously, even Starbucks which must import it´s soy milk from the US, as I have only ever seen that particular brand in the States, uses UHT milk. The one time I have had real, fresh milk in Chile was when I was visited a friend´s parent´s dairy farm. Soy milk and other cow milk substitures are also not commonly sold here, so really the only option is UHT. My solution has been to avoid drinking milk.

  8. Anne

    This article was timely for me. I just returned from spending two months with friends in India, including 10 days at Woodstock. When we lived there in the 1970s, all milk came from water buffaloes owned by village dudh-wallas who delivered it daily by mule. It had to be boiled (it was often diluted with water of unknown origin). It came daily, so we got however much we needed (I think about a liter or two a day). After boiling and cooling, the cream was skimmed for desserts or butter. Our children didn’t like to drink it straight. Now UHT milk is available and the expatriates living there use it exclusively (and they all have fridges, smaller like Italian ones). The Indian family we stayed with used a mixture of UHT milk for cereal and less expensive milk packed in plastic bags by the kilo or half kilo. The neighborhood shop that carried it only had it in the mornings; after that it would be frozen, which our friends refused to buy. This milk needed to be boiled then refrigerated and lasted a day or two. The cream went nicely on top of jam on toast!

  9. Rana

    I’ve lived in the US, in Europe, in Africa and in India, I don’t have an answer, but I echo the question:
    Yes the milk in India/Africa tasted different from the milk in America/Europe, basically foul versus drinkable. But I understand the different treatments involved there. However, even in similar packaging, how is US millk treated differently to European milk so it tastes the same (to me) but seems to last for so much longer?? I really want to know.

  10. Gina

    It has been a year since my last trip to Italy and the one thing I keep looking for here in the US is yogurt similar to what I had there. My dad, 2 daughters and myself rented an apartment for a bit there and I absolutely loved running to the shop around the corner daily to purchase groceries. The yogurt was amazing…creamy,so flavorful and in these dainty little cups. I have no idea what exactly the difference is between ours and that in Italy, but it was so tasty and very much missed!

  11. Lisa

    This is an old post, but I still felt compelled to comment…Italian milk, like all of its foods, is fresh and excellent. In the U.S., I have to by lactose free milk to tolerate it. In Italy, I could drink milk all day long and not have a problem. My whole body felt better. Italian milk probably spoils more quickly because they’re not messing with it.

  12. Sarah

    I found the same thing, Lisa. In the US and the UK I can’t drink milk (or have icecream) and have to use soy milk or I get sick. In Italy I have no problem–I can drink as much milk as I want. I wish I knew what the differences in production and/or additives were so I could look for dairy that I can have. Bring on the chocolate milk!

  13. Richard Davies

    When I think of Italy & milk I think of Pamalat, who because Europe’s biggest dairy company by developing a process to make milk last longer (& possibly with some Robert Maxwell style accounting…).

    Since I started living on my own I’ve found buying the right quantity of milk can be tricky, as I try to get enough to last without having too much which then goes off.

    One trick my Mum suggested was to freeze a small plastic bottle & defrost it when it looks like I’m beginning to run short.

    This seems to work OK, as the milk will defrost back to normal.

  14. Susan

    The difference is that Italian milk is Type A2 milk and most milk in the USA is type A1 and has one single another variable in the DNA analysis which is for many people undigestible and is converted to a rather toxic product. Google and or read “The Devil in the Milk” it is quite an revelation of information. We must petition here as in New Zealand to have our milk dairy cows replaced with the A2 milk type producers . Those who cannot wait may tolerate goats or sheeps milks as they are of the A2 type.

  15. Sara K

    The reason traditional Italian milk spoils quickly is because it is fresh and better for human consumption than the chemical filled milk available in America.

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