While we have written in other posts about the importance of cheese for French culture and cuisine, today we will discuss the equally important source—milk. Due to France’s immaculate natural environment and climate, which includes large regions of green meadows and grassy fields, as well as the perfect amount of rain to bring the vegetation to life, the French dairy farms are situated in one of the most suitable regions in the world to raise dairy cows.
The Beginnings of Dairy
Long before France became an independent nation, milk was being consumed all across Europe for thousands of years. While many historians agree that milk consumption dates back to sometime during the Neolithic Era, depending on the region of the world, it is usually considered to have begun in Europe around 7500 years ago. Around this time, dairy farming began increasing as Central Europeans underwent a genetic change, allowing their bodies to produce the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose. Due to this incredible genetic mutation, people were able to consume milk throughout their whole lives without suffering any severe complications.
One of the hypothesized reasons that this genetic mutation was naturally selected for, allowing it to become a dominant trait among Europeans, is because it was especially helpful during periods when food shortages had occurred. During these times, dairy consumption increased because it was extremely conducive for providing the nutrients we need to stay healthy, and since only certain adults could consume milk without suffering digestive complications, the people who were more likely to pass on their genes were people who had the genetic mutation that allowed their bodies to comfortably consume milk.
Modern Day Dairy
Today, the dairy industry in France has grown to an epic size. Even though this industry has grown to around 65,000 dairy farms and 650 processing plants, the individual farms still remain relatively small compared to the industrial-sized dairy farming we see in the United States. Most dairy farms are still family-oriented operations, consisting of herds between 30 and 120 cows, which allows them to ensure each individual cow is cared for properly, with special attention given to health and well-being.
While France has always has strict policies surrounding the dairy industry in order to maintain the high quality of milk that France is known for around the world, such as specific requirements for the feed and care for the cows, as well as frequent inspections to ensure farms are following these guidelines, in recent years, France has been especially focusing on improving the overall well-being of the animals. Furthering continued efforts over the last couple centuries to improve overall farming practices, France has expanded their work to improve the health and well-being of the cows to include goals such as lowering cows’ stress levels and also ensuring the cows are able to express natural behaviors. These efforts not only improve the lives of the animals that provide us our nutrients, but it also improves the overall quality of the milk.
The typical life of a cow in France includes stress-free grazing outdoors between April and October, where the cow will be eating the natural grasses of the land. During the other part of the year, the cows will be fed fodder that is naturally grown on the farm, which typically consists of hay and cereal. As previously mentioned, the dairy farming process in France pays special attention to the cows health and stress levels throughout their whole life, not only to ensure the overall well-being of these incredibly important animals, but also to guarantee the highest quality of milk.
While cows dominate the dairy scene, with approximately 3.6 million across all of France, sheep and goats also make up a large portion of the dairy industry, with 1.2 million and 850,000, respectively. With 20 different breeds of cows across France, the diversity of milk allows the French to produce a wide-range of delicious and unique products, including cheese, butter, cream, and yogurt.
Not only is the milk produced in France of superior quality, but the dairy industry is also one of the most important components of France’s economy. With nearly 28 billion euros in revenue each year, 300,000 jobs across the dairy industry, and 3.6 billion euros in trade surplus from dairy alone, milk and other dairy products have become one of the strongest supporters of France’s overall economy.
The True “Land of Milk”
With its rich history in the development of French culture and immense importance for French cuisine, dairy farming remains one of France’s most cherished traditions. Not only is the milk craved by nations all over the world because of its superior quality and diversity, but all of the dairy products created with it are as well. Together, all of these attributes have truly given France the right to be known as the “Land of Milk.”