When I was growing up the milkman still delivered in glass jars and the color of butter depended on the season of the year. Times have changed though, and Big Ag has taken over the dairy game. The number of dairy farms and the total number of dairy cows decrease every year, but the volume of milk produced continues to rise - true industrial efficiency. The driving factor here is Big Ag’s most efficient dairy machine, the Holstein cow. If you buy milk in a supermarket today, odds are it’s from a Holstein since this breed now represents 93% of the total herd in this country. The other “significant” dairy breeds in this country over the last century, Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss and Shorthorn, have all seriously declined in numbers in the last 50 years.
The whole milk that is sold these days has been standardized at a minimum fat content, 3.25%, but this is a point of purchase standard, not a point of milking standard, and all milk is not created equal. When the focus shifted to the volume of milk produced by a cow, the quantity and quality of butterfat and protein in the milk became secondary concerns, if they were concerns at all. Believe it or not at one time milk was a very local product in most parts of this country, and many people bought a particular farmer’s milk based on its taste.
The milk from each breed has its own particular nutritional composition, - fats, proteins, etc. - and this composition determines the milk’s flavor and the mouth feel. Of course, it also affects the concentrated forms of milk - cream, butter, and cheese. Ever wonder why Jersey cream or Normandy butter are so flavorful? Holsteins may be the queens of volume, but their milk has the lowest percentage of butterfat and protein of any of the significant dairy breeds. In most cases today, the milk from the other breeds is also sold into the dairy supply chain where it is blended with Holstein milk.
Now, I’m not a milk drinker, but I do use a lot of heavy cream in cooking and in deserts. To date I have used Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, and Shorthorn heavy creams, and the differences in flavor were noticeable. The Holstein cream was from a small dairy, and while it was flavorful, it couldn’t compare to the creams from other breeds. I think the differences in milk composition can be even more noticeable in cheese, and this brings me to a true heritage star, the Ayrshire. White with reddish brown spots, Ayrshires are particularly hardy cows originally from Scotland that are very efficient in turning grass into high quality, flavorful milk. In 1920 it was estimated that there were over 400,000 Ayrshires in the country – some estimates put today’s number at around 20,000 head. There are registered breeders in 29 states, but the largest numbers of registered Ayrshires are in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, and Vermont.
Ayrshire milk has been prized around the world for its excellent flavor and mouth feel, and it averages slightly less than 4% butterfat - about 10% more than Holstein milk and 20% more than the standardized USDA requirement for whole milk. It also contains more protein, and all this means more flavor and more nutrition. Most significant is the fact that the fat in Ayrshire milk has the smallest sized fat globules of any of the significant milking breeds in this country making it easier to digest and better for producing aged cheese. In the 1920s and 1930s the Ayrshire Breeder’s Association in this country branded and promoted the milk on the basis of superior flavor and nutrition. Today, it is now sold as branded milk in the UK where it commands a higher price.
While I live in Washington, I travel frequently to Oregon and California, but unfortunately these states do not seem to possess significant numbers of Ayrshire cows - if they do the farmers do not market their milk directly to the public. While I have not had access to whole milk, heavy cream or butter from these cows, I have had a number of delicious cheeses made from Ayrshire milk.
I still remember when I tasted the raw milk Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont for the first time a number of years ago, so bold and exploding with complex flavors. This was actually the first time I learned about the breed and some research lead me to Jasper Hill’s Bartlett Blue and Winnimere washed-rind. Bartlett Blue is only made in the summer when the cows are at pasture, and it is sweeter and creamier than the Bayley Hazen. It is my all time favorite blue cheese...so far. I have also enjoyed Crawford Family Farm’s Vermont Ayr farmstead cheese.
Closer to home, I have been enjoying the cheeses from Ancient Heritage Dairy in Scio Oregon. Their bloomy rind Adelle, Scio Feta, and Hannah Bridge raw milk are all made from a combination of sheep milk and Ayrshire cow milk. I am a sheep cheese fanatic and am not always fond of mixed milk cheeses, but the Ayrshire milk makes these cheeses special – the Scio Feta is truly amazing. Later this year I will be visiting relatives in the Boston area, and I hope to make it out to a farmers’ market or two where I can buy some Ayrshire milk, cream, and butter.
I have been able to source Ayrshire cheese in Massachusetts at Westfield Farms in Hubbardston and Ayrshire dairy products at Hancock Farm in Barre. In Pennsylvania, Ayrshire milk cheese and other dairy products can be purchased at Hendricks Farm and Dairy in Telford. The U.S. Ayrshire Breeders Association website contains a contact list of breeders by state, and this would be the best way to track down and buy Ayrshire dairy products nearest you.