Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Milk Tasting 101

Despite being fairly lactose-intolerant, I happen have opinions about the different kinds of powdered milks that are available, both here and in America. As a camper and then counselor at Camp Unalayee, a fantastic backpacking summer camp in Northern California, I developed an appreciation for Milkman low-fat powdered milk, with its bright orange box, hermetically sealed pouches, and "a kiss of cream!" Compared with the generic non-fat sacks of milk powder, which had a dull flavor, looked grayish, and always left behind gummy little clumps of residue, Milkman was a delicious, smooth, slightly rich-tasting treat. I experimented with powdered soymilk, which was fine but somewhat unimpressive, and eventually went back to Milkman and started carrying little packets of LactAid tablets around with me to mitigate the rather unbecoming symptoms of my digestive tract's inability to process lactose.

When I first arrived in Senegal I avoided milk products altogether, figuring that my poor stomach had enough to contend with already. Eventually, though, I started mixing a little bit of powdered milk into my morning oatmeal and making NesCafé-au-lait-en-poudre. When I started buying more milk Wouri, one of the local boutique owners, gave me a crash course in the merits and characteristics of different brands of milk powder. According to him, Halib, which is made in Senegal, is the best because it's pure whole milk, just dried and powdered. The other brands, VitaLait and Bonilait, are actually made by taking powdered non-fat milk and adding in vegetable fats to "refatten" it, giving it the richness and texture that people here prefer. Pretty much all the people I talked to in my village preferred Halib, but also liked VitaLait quite a bit. 

There are a few other brands but Halib and VitaLait are by far the most widely available and most popular. I wondered if other PCVs had a similar interest in powdered milks. They didn't, but they agreed to participate in a blind taste test of three kinds of powdered milk anyway, and the results were somewhat surprising. 

Of all the milks, VitaLait (Jar B) was the clear loser. It was described as "watery", "bland rice water", and "sour." It didn't mix in as smoothly as the other brands and left little globs of milk powder on the sides of the jar. Personally, I don't mind VitaLait, but I think it tastes a little plastic-y, and has a slight chemical aftertaste, but that could be partly because I don't like the idea of it being stripped of its milk fat and then artificially" re-fatted." It reminds me of how nice chocolate is made with whole cacao nuts, with the cocoa butter left in, and cheap, waxy chocolate is made by extracting the rich  cocoa butter for use in other products and then adding in cheaper, worse-tasting oils and waxes as fat-based fillers. 
Halib (Jar A), the brand that left in the milk fat instead of replacing it with vegetable fat, had mixed reviews. Some tasters really didn't like it, describing it as "dry", "enh", "fruity rotten" and "slightly fecal-tasting." However, it turned out that some of these people didn't drink cow milk in America, which might have created a bias. We realized that people who did drink cow milk back in America seemed to tend to prefer Halib, saying that it tasted "more milky", "grassy in a nice way", and "no poop taste." I think Halib is good, and agree that it has a grassy, bovine taste and I'd prefer Trader Joe's Unsweetened Organic Soy Milk, but it's not bad for the time being. 
Finally, to me Bonilait tasted exactly like non-dairy creamer. It was the whitest, finest, most opaque of all the milk powders, and it didn't taste bad. It just tasted like plain Coffeemate. The people who didn't drink cow milk before Peace Corps really preferred it, saying it tasted "good", "like Momma's teat", and "good." The people who didn't like it described it as "malt-starch-sugar", "meh", and "no."

Everyone agreed that powdered milk was not their preferred dairy or dairy-ish drink, and also that room temperature milk, powdered or otherwise, isn't very appealing. Also, all of the powders tasted pretty good if you mix them with instant coffee and sugar and leave them in the freezer for awhile.

(Many thanks to Chrissie, New Frank, Janet, Flatrick Bair, and Katie O. for making this post possible.)


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