Milk? You could write a book on it... so they did

In the fourth part of her series on milk, KATE RYAN talks to John McKenna, who wrote a book with his wife Sally on the subject
Milk? You could write a book on it... so they did

John and Sally McKenna who wrote a book called MILK – the story of Ireland’s culinary treasure explored through recipes, history and culture. 

THE sign of a good cookbook is one that is useful, a work horse — a book you find yourself returning too often over months and years.

This is the promise John McKenna makes about his and wife Sally’s latest book: MILK.

From exotic-sounding Turkish Golden Yogurt by Ahmed Dede or Takashi Miyazki’s Vinegar Milk and Cottage Cheese, to Patrick Ryan’s Batch Loaf and Caitlin Ruth’s Burnt Milk and Whiskey Cocktail... the recipes collected in Milk take the most everyday of ingredients and showcase their versatility to create myriad flavours, textures and uses.

“Milk is a shapeshifter,” John says, “but you’ll never find it listed in the indexes of cookbooks — or butter.”

I checked a sample of my own cookbooks after the interview. He was correct, despite any number of recipes requiring milk in some shape or form in the making of them.

Writing MILK was completed in five short, intensive weeks during lockdown. The genesis of the idea was a little longer in the making, originating out of an invitation for John to give a speech two and a half years ago for the National Dairy Council (NDC) on the occasion of the Quality Milk Awards.

“I said I would love to — I’m fascinated about milk. But then I had to think about what I wanted to say…”

John’s research led to pitching an idea for a book to the NDC, but nothing was immediately forthcoming. Until, that is, March, 2020 happened.

“Everything shuts down, the NDC aren’t doing Bloom or the Ploughing Championships, etc. Suddenly everything was gone, and then the NDC came back to us and said, let’s go with the book and could we get it done by autumn?

MILK – the story of Ireland’s culinary treasure explored through recipes, history and culture by John and Sally McKenna.
MILK – the story of Ireland’s culinary treasure explored through recipes, history and culture by John and Sally McKenna.

“We wanted to be able to produce a book that we could price at around €17, but in order to do that we had to get the book printed in the Far East, and said we thought we could make the timeline.

“We spoke to our photographer, Mike O’Toole who we’ve worked with for 25 years, and he said he was doing nothing, and his wife Ann-Marie, a food stylist, was available too. Then we rang the chefs asking if they could contribute a recipe, and they weren’t doing anything either!

“It was completely serendipitous; there’s no way we could create a book that fast unless everybody is working flat out on this one thing, not doing anything else, people taking your call and saying, ‘Yes, I can do that, you’ll have it in 48 hours’. And so lucky us!”

The book positions milk as Ireland’s ‘Grand Cru’, a term used to express quality in the language of wine.

“I began thinking, how do you build a language about a liquid? How do you express this? You can say: this is very good, or nice, or tasty, but that’s too subjective.

“Winemakers say the reason a particular wine is a Grand Cru rather than a Vin de Table is because of the terroir, whereas what really influences the taste of a wine is the bacteria on grape skins. Terroir is a nonsense, but a good line!

“What do you need to produce great milk? The answer is: a happy cow in a field where rain has come to make the grass grow, where there is rotational grazing, where the cow isn’t stressed and only has a short walk to be milked twice a day.

“You’ve also got a farmer who knows if a cow is well, or if the cow is Daisy rather than just #965. The farmer has cultural knowledge: he might be third or fourth generation, he knows his fields, knows his grass. That’s how you make a Grand Cru drink. You have all the ideal circumstances, and they all line up.”

Dairy science research has uncovered an understanding that milk has a specific matrix: an interconnected web of factors that create a nutritionally dense food containing, amongst many things, key vitamins A, D and K, beto-carotene, calcium and Conjugated Linoleic Acid — fatty acids with metabolic and antioxidant properties. This matrix, John says, can only exist if a cow can graze on grass. Taking the cow off grass and feeding it grain breaks this matrix, reducing the overall health benefits of milk,” says John.

“We all grow up being told cows eat grass, but technically it’s the bacteria in the stomach of a cow that breaks down the grass, eventually turning grass into milk. Cows need a really healthy gut, which comes from eating grass, creating a healthy biome in the rumen, resulting in healthy milk that we’ve been told by our parents to drink up so our bones get big and we get healthy teeth. It’s a genuine health drink!”

Food writers John and Sally McKenna .
Food writers John and Sally McKenna .

There is magic in our fridges, John says. A little Harry Potter wizard that we don’t take enough notice of or give enough credit too.

“Milk is magic,” he says, and everything about it connected to a kind of cultural wisdom particular to the Irish. Our culinary history is entwined with milk, and our culture of farming is an essential link with it.

“Talk to a farmer. He might not have a PhD, but he knows exactly the ideal moment when the grass is ready. He doesn’t have to be an agronomist — he just knows it. And milk in many ways incarnates that because people were so familiar with it that they valued it, because they didn’t have the vast array of foods that we have today. 

"They built folklore and superstitions around milk, and of course, now it’s in every fridge in every kitchen in every house, so we don’t actually think about it. But it is worth thinking about it because it has a magic and a healthfulness,” says John.

The dairy industry has been the target of environmental concern in recent years. Cows emit methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

But, says John, the way Irish dairy farms operate is taken out of context of our agricultural environment, one that operates on the ethos of something called the Biogenic Carbon Cycle.

The Biogenic Carbon Cycle follows the journey of methane produced by cows into the atmosphere, converted into carbon dioxide that is then captured by plants through photosynthesis and stored in the ground as carbon by plants (grass), and consumed once more by the cow.

“This cycle continues over a 10- to 12-year period, unlike methane released by fossil fuels released into the atmosphere just once, but it wasn’t in the atmosphere before.”

That’s not to say that aren’t improvements to be made. Increasing the variety of rye grasses for cows to eat reduces rates of grass mono-culture cultivation, and including herbs, legumes such as clover and even seaweed have all shown to actively reduce methane emissions. Even more so as farms move to install biodigesters for their compost.

“Our dairying industry is a good industry: its built on small farms, and yet it’s world beating,” says John.

“Irish dairy farms are sustainable in the best possible way: they can pivot and survive if there is a year of bad weather, but also they grow organically. Herd numbers have grown since the quota system ended, but a farmer can’t suddenly go and buy another 100 cows.

“Farming is still limited by human ability, and it still is a human industry. It’s the family farm going back four or five generations, obsessing about successors — someone who has the grá for the farm and the grass. Farmers know it’s all about the next generation. They are forward-looking people,” John explains.

With such deep-rooted cultural ties to dairy in Ireland, it’s no wonder that when John and Sally put the call out to chefs for inspiration and delved into their own culinary repertoire, they came up with a diverse collection of creative recipes. In MILK they are referred to ‘Things You Can Do with Milk.’

“That was Sally’s idea,” John says. 

“In a certain sense, in a recipe, milk is a building block, you’re trying to use the structure of the milk in different ways, whether it’s a labneh, yogurt or a bechamel.

“One idea which really caught people’s imagination is the Corn Cheese recipe. Everybody says it’s amazing, but we’ve been eating that for years and our kids were practically reared on it! Just cheese, frozen corn and bechamel — it couldn’t be simpler, but the bechamel has the ability somehow to extract flavour from the cheese and sweetness from the corn. It’s really good food!”

John and Sally are keen on using old ideas, like Peanut Butter Cookies – a recipe from Sally’s Grandmother, or Tony Davidson’s Crispy Haddock Goujons, which calls for the fish to be soaked in buttermilk before battering and frying, to create a picture of a contemporary food culture where milk is a building block of great tasting food. So yes, things to do with milk.

“Milk is a shapeshifter — it will do what you want. If you’re the cook, it’s a great companion. It will convert into yogurt, labneh and cream cheese.

“We wanted a useful cookery book, a book you can really put to work. If all you have in front of you is a carton of milk, we wanted to be able to say to you: OK, you can do this, or this or this,” says John.

So, what is the one recipe from MILK John and Sally keep coming back to?

“It has to be the recipe for Corn Cheese,” says John, and so we leave you with this ode to Ireland’s Grand Cru in all its milky, buttery, cheesy yumminess.

MILK is available from and all good bookstores. €17.99

Corn Cheese. 
Corn Cheese. 


Ingredients (Serves 2-4)

50g butter, plus extra for topping

50g flour

500g milk

100g cheddar-style cheese, grated (we use Dubliner, Bandon Vale, Wexford Cheddar, or Irish local creamery cheese)

salt and pepper

5ml (1 tsp) grated nutmeg

450g frozen corn

3 bay leaves


  • First make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter, and add the flour, stirring to make a roux. Slowly add the milk, stirring the whole time as you do. Cook on the hob for about 4 minutes, stirring very regularly so lumps don’t form. Only at this point add most of the grated cheese (if you add at the beginning it will separate), leaving some for the topping. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
  • Preheat the oven to 190°C. Open the bag of corn (no need to defrost) and place in a large ovenproof dish. Slip in the three bay leaves. Pour over the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Dot with the rest of the grated cheese and thin slices of butter. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling hot and the cheese topping is brown and crispy.

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