Did I mention before how it is hard to find fresh milk in Istanbul? Most of the milk sold in the Istanbul supermarkets is UHT (uzun ömürlü): it is destined to the long life outside of the fridge. It seems people here don’t mind a huge shelf with UHT and a tiny compartment in the refrigerator where you (might) get the real deal since your favorite brand is often out of stock.
Call me a culinary dinosaur but I had no idea about the existence of the UHT milk for the first 22 years of my life. At the first year of the business school my world was shattered when I learned about the mere possibility of producing (and consuming) something like UHT: me and a few of my classmate played a business simulation and our task was to find the optimal mix of the fresh milk and UHT to produce and market in Europe. I was shocked anyone in their clear mind would buy UHT.
In Soviet Russia where I grew up fresh milk was sold in the 1l emerald-hued glass bottles sealed with the emerald-hued foil. The foil was stamped with an expiry day, usually just 2-3 days from the day of purchase. There was also a tradition of buying milk loose: my grandma kept 1L, 2L and 3L enameled aluminum cans that were so practical for getting milk from a large churn that would daily deliver to the state-owned grocery store. Milk was used up quickly in our family: added to kasha, drank just as it is and often times fashioned as a cold soup – poured into a bowl with fresh raspberries in summer or with large chunks of the fresh rye bread any other time. And just as the milk started to curdle and smell sour (but never unpleasant) my grandma would fix her signature thick blini.
My husband also remembers the days of fresh milk. During his Istanbul childhood fresh milk was delivered by the milkman in the copper or aluminum casks with 1L cap serving as a measuring tool. However, the delivered goodie was almost solely destined for the kids as Turks are not the most avid milk drinkers out there. These days my mother-in-law buys raw fresh milk from the market weekly: she boils it, and you have to be quick if you want a glass – before you know some of the milk will be turned into sütlaç, Turkish rice pudding, and the reminder will be curdled to make yogurt.
If you look at the Turkish tradition of yogurt and its derivatives it makes sense that people don’t drink so much of fresh milk that becomes a luxury at such warm climate where milk curdles too soon. No wonder that people here have not developed a tradition of appreciating fresh milk while absolutely everyone has a soft spot for yogurt shamefully known to the world as Greek while it most likely to have originated in Central Asia.
That’s why good fresh milk is such a big rarity in Istanbul. I have tried all the brands available at the supermarkets here and now only drink L’era Fresca (they don’t pay me for saying that). It’s the most expensive milk (3.95 TL a liter at Migros) out there, and it sells like hot pies so no chances of finding a single bottle on the milk refrigerator shelves in the evening. I never thought I would pay 2 dollars for a liter of milk, but it tastes so real and it is full cream (I could never buy into the idea of skimmed milk).
When the milk is fresh I warm it up and froth it with the French press to make my daily cup of coffee. Or I will toss some black tea leaves and milk into a small pot and simmer with cardamon or fresh ginger. I also enjoy a glass of cold milk with the cookies I sneakily bake more often than I tell anybody (I had a look at my Pinterest the other day and discovered that I had a secret life! While My Istanbul kitchen board featuring what I cook looks so green and healthy the Inspiring food board where I clip anything that looks tempting is filled with baked goods and desserts).
L’era Fresca surely reminds me of milk from my Soviet childhood: it curdles a few days after the purchase. It curdles very nicely though as the milk continues smelling pleasantly, and it never develops repellent moldy odors that are characteristic for the other Turkish brands of fresh milk. So when my 2 dollar a liter milk curdles pouring it into the sink is the last thought that crosses my mind. I would make blini, or boil and strain it to make cottage cheese, or.. I would bake. Because a piece of cake looks like a small sacrifice when one is on a mission to save the so precious fresh (even though slightly curdled) milk.