13 April 2009

Old Time Milk in St Petersburg... But Not in Our Country Village

When I was a child I would wake to the sound of horse shoes hitting the pavement as the Becker Farms wagon struggled up the hill to bring milk to our home in New Jersey. I would go to the milk box ("What's that?", today's children would say) and bring in the bottles along with the butter my mom sometimes requested on her note to the milkman.

I would take off the paper wrapper and stopper, pour off cream for coffee, and then drop a dinner knife into the bottle and stir the remaining cream into the milk. I can remember the ring of the knife, the smell of good milk, and the special quality of light in our kitchen of years ago. We are going back 50 years, before Americans shifted their milk purchase to the supermarket. Real milk became low or no fat pastuerized, homogenized, tasteless white water.

Living in St Petersburg has serendipitious effects... one is our ability to get milk straight from the cow ... unpastuerized and unmanipulated. Every Monday and Thursday I wake Larissa at 8:30 and send her out in the cold and wind to have the milk lady top off our two liter jug. On return she fills a few jars and places them with loose tops on the counter. After a few days these bottles will have delicious fermented milk... kefir. The rest of the milk she pours into a sauce pan to heat until the cream congeals on top and the milk rises on the inside edge like a volcano getting ready to explode. This is our pastuerized and heavenly milk!

Like many Russians in St Petersburg, anticipation of summer at the dacha keeps us going during the cold months. We have an old subsistence farmstead previously attached to the колхоэ, the collective farm. Larissa's cousins had around 30 cows, 60 sheep, and one horse until last fall. After one of them had a stroke, they sold off everything but one cow and some sheep.

This will probably be our first summer without fresh milk, and it will mean no kefir, prostaquascha, or yoghurt. The benefit will be that we won't have to mend the fences.

The former collective was the only remaining working farm for many miles. The cousins, agronomists with this kalhos, kept working the land and eventually due to farmer protective legislation it became theirs. The old half collapsed barn was sufficient to house their cattle and sheep.

We bought our few acres with a log house and several outbuilding in 2003, travelling to look at the place in April when heavy ice was on the rough road through the forest. Miles and miles of shrubs and new forest cover the productive fields of 1990.

The collective workers left the farms and eke out a living however they can. As the bushes and trees have taken over the land, so alcohol has taken a yet firmer hold on the men since Soviet days. The countryside is beautiful but the people don't have the purpose and energy that some had before.

So the milk I enjoyed as a child we now have in St Petersburg, while natural milk at the dacha may well be replaced with modern bland equivalents. That's life in the big city... and in our small village!

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