My Year Without Dairy

I’ve got a secret to share: until last week, I hadn’t actually eaten cheese for a whole year. A cheesemaker not eating cheese, you ask? Scandal afoot?

Well, no, but in July 2019 I got some unwelcome news: my six-week-old baby had a sensitive milk protein allergy and, as she was breastfed, I had to exclude all dairy and soya (including goat and sheep’s milk) from my diet. So began my year without cheese.

The irony of this happening to a cheesemaker and dairy farmer was not lost on me, but I was initially quite stoical about it; it wasn’t like I usually glugged down glasses of milk, and surely it was a small price to pay for my daughter being happy and healthy.

What I didn’t know at that time was that a full year with no dairy or soya at all would feel like a very long time and a very big challenge. It was about much more than just avoiding milk and cheese. I’ve always hated being fussy, but now I could find myself in a café not able to eat a single one of their cakes, biscuits or sandwiches.

I did adapt. My ‘hidden dairy’ radar quickly sharpened. I found out that some substitutions are just as good if not better than the real thing. Dairy-free food can be really, really delicious. Things have moved on in the last five or ten years too, and many restaurants have allergen menus, vegan dishes on the menu, and a willingness to tweak things if you ask, which makes things easier. You do still get a few blank stares or nervous comments like ‘are eggs dairy?’ (they’re not, for the avoidance of doubt).

I never stopped missing cheese, though. I would sometimes indulge myself and sniff deeply in the direction of someone else’s cheesy dish to get that rich aroma. Pizza, aubergine parmigiana, and macaroni cheese were all the stuff of my dreams. I longed to get back to tasting and eating our own cheese too; it felt very weird to make it but not eat it. By the end of the year, I had almost forgotten what it tasted like.

So I was delighted when last week I got back the freedom to choose what I ate again. To end the fast in style, I ordered a box of fine artisan cheeses from The Courtyard Dairy: the kind I have been mentally drooling over for a year. It didn’t disappoint.

But, this year has taught me a lot. I’m eating dairy again, but not just going back to business as usual, and have been doing some thinking.

Here are the top things I learnt from my year off dairy:

1. Milk is hidden everywhere in our diet. Hidden milk was my nemesis! BBQ flavour crisps, salt and vinegar Pringles, flatbreads, and almost anything on an Indian takeaway menu are a few that caught me out.

2. Some surprising foods don’t contain milk. Oreos, Hobnobs, Jus Rol pain au chocolate, and almost all dishes from a Thai takeaway menu. You get can normal digestive biscuits with or without milk in the recipe, and they taste exactly the same.

3. Some dairy I really didn’t miss. I am still drinking Oatly Barista oat milk in hot drinks because I prefer it now. I also prefer coconut milk yoghurt to ‘normal’ yoghurt. I’m happy cooking with olive or veg oil rather than butter. Oat milk works really well in cooking and baking – I can’t tell the difference in, say, pancakes or scrambled egg.

4. Some foods really do have to be made of milk. Top of that list is cheese. There is no substitute for cheese, period. Dairy free cheese is rubbery, tastes weirdly sweet and slightly of coconut, doesn’t melt properly and is generally just nothing like cheese, at all. I would also include clotted cream and white chocolate on my list of things that really have to be made of milk and which I just couldn’t wait to eat again.

5. I didn’t notice any health benefits. A lot of people asked me if I felt better for not eating dairy, but I honestly can’t say I noticed a difference. And neither did cutting out dairy make me lose weight (sigh).

6. You pay. The oat milk I buy is about twice as much per litre as a standard semi-skimmed cows’ milk, and 35p a litre more expensive even than organic milk.

So what of all of this? I do think it is imperative for more of us to think about how much meat and dairy is regularly included in our diets. The volume of dairy and meat that is habitually and unthinkingly eaten by most Brits concerns me, as it makes large scale intensive livestock farming the necessary production method. This kind of production does produce cheap and (mostly) nutritious food, and for items like milk to be affordable and abundant is of course important for many families.

But when there is so much hidden milk, and so much dairy that could go without us even noticing, you have to wonder. Couldn’t we do with a lot less, but of higher quality and in the places that matter (ahem, cheese!)? My favourite quality artisan cheddar is two and a half times more expensive than Cathedral City. The quality of the milk and the welfare of the animals producing the two cheeses is correspondingly miles apart. Would it be a good choice to buy the more expensive cheese, but just eat less of it and savour it more? Probably. Are most people ready for that choice? I’m not sure.

We should aim for the volumes and types of produce we consume to be such that they can be sustainably produced in high welfare farming systems. I don’t want to do without cheese, but I can do without Philadelphia and BBQ Popchips.

But don’t take Sinodun Hill away from me again…

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© 2014 by Norton and Yarrow Cheese Ltd. 

Contact Rachel and Fraser: nortonandyarrow@gmail.com