You know, it’s easy to be blasé about cream. Top-quality, sweet, neutral-tasting cream is everywhere. In fact it’s fair to say it’s in too many places, just another garden-variety indulgence from the refrigerated dairy section.
It wasn’t always so. Before, say, the mid-1800’s, if you were looking for a little cream to whip up and put on your pumpkin pie, your cow was your refrigerated dairy section — one which did double-duty as a plow-puller or wagon-hauler. Which meant it was big, muscled and lean. It ate anything from patches of grass in the summer to hay, partially rotted corn or sorghum husks, even the spent grain from the local brewery in the winter. And the milk it gave…well, let’s just say it wasn’t always Grade A.
And that’s when the milk was fresh. If you didn’t live right there on the farm, it was usually spoiled to some degree by the time it got to you. That all changed with the industrial revolution and the invention of steam power, when life improved significantly for the urban dairy lover. Suddenly milk could be shipped long distances by locomotive. Steam-powered farm equipment took the labor burden off cattle, which meant farmers could raise specialty breeds of cows for their milk alone.
Even so, the modern dairy was still a long way off. As recently as World War II, milk, cream and butter production could be alarmingly primitive. Local dairies relied on individual farmers to collect and store the milk and cream they needed to make their cheese and butter. The dairy man would arrive to pick it up a few days a week, by which time the good stuff, which had been sitting in jugs in the barn, was sour. That didn’t necessarily mean it was dangerous (pasteurization was in common use by then), but it did taste acidic due to the action of bacteria. This the dairy would correct by adding some sort of alkaline (usually a little lye) to the batch. Problem solved.
Neutralized cream was sometimes sold for consumption as it was, but usually it was used for butter. After World War II, as refrigeration came into broader use, it was possible to collect and sell “sweet cream” as a matter of course. Today those words on the butter box have become virtually meaningless, like a bag of frozen peas printed with the words “Grown in Real Sunlight!” But quite recently, “sweet cream” actually meant something to people.
Given how difficult it’s historically been to bring fresh, quality cream to the dinner tables of the world, imagine the delight with which a post-war Italian family would have received a dish like panna cotta. Sweet, fresh cream served firm and cold with a hint of sugar and a fresh berry or two. It would have been the dining equivalent of a spring breeze. We can’t experience the same feeling now, and that’s probably a good thing. Today we need to add various elements to plain cream to make it more interesting to us, since as I said at the outset, cream has come to be seen more as a “blank canvas” than a thing to be appreciate in and of itself.
That said, I’ll strive not to be a purist bore this week and demand that you sit your hind end down and appreciate your plain cream (my grade school music teacher used to attempt that with Beethoven in his after-school listening class, and look where that got him…we all went home and listened to the Ramones). Cream of a quality higher than has heretofore been seen on this Earth is commonplace now — so bully for us! Let’s make the most of it.