Milk it: The magical liquid and how to transform it

New book shines a light on a most elemental food source

"Milk is a magical liquid," says John McKenna, quoting the French sociologist Pierre Boisard, from his book about the history of Camembert. "It was one of those lightbulb moments," McKenna adds, and now he and his wife Sally have written a book dedicated to this most elemental of foods.

"Pasture is the secret of great milk and great butter and when you take cows off pasture, you get milk but it's not the same thing, the magic is gone. You've got to have the cow in the field. That's why our milk is so good," McKenna says, speaking from his home in Durrus, where he says he is looking out at cows grazing in front of him.

"Whenever our kids were away from home and we'd ask was everything ok, they would say 'everything is fine, but we just miss Clóna milk'. We have very nice milk here in West Cork. "

Research he undertook for his monthly column in the Irish Times Health & Family supplement "piqued his interest" in milk, McKenna says. "I just began to think more about it. Because good milk is so commonplace in Ireland, we kind of take it for granted."


With support from the National Dairy Council, the McKennas are releasing Milk next month, published by their own Estragon Press. "We really wanted to do something different, to look at it from a cultural point of view as well as a culinary point of view."

The project, which was completed during the initial Covid-19 lockdown, reunited a creative team that first worked together 25 years ago on the book, Pizza Defined, by Bernadette O'Shea. Photographer Mike O'Toole and his wife, food stylist Anne Marie Tobin were available due to the cancellation of other projects, including the Matt Damon movie to be filmed in Dublin, which Tobin was due to work on. "It came together quickly, having been years in the development," McKenna says. "In a curious way, from the point of producing the book, the lockdown was a silver lining really."

Milk features profiles of dairy farming families, along with recipes, and a really useful chapter on the things that you can do with milk. If you've ever wondered how to make yoghurt or labneh, you can follow instructions from chefs Ahmet Dede and Jess Murphy, and there's a whole section devoted to compound butters and how to use them. Irish cacio e pepe butter, for example, combines butter with Corleggy cheese, Cais na Tire cheese and crushed black pepper. "It is good with new potatoes," they say.

Milk, by John and Sally McKenna, is published by Estragon Press in October, €17.


Tony Davidson cooks seafood for the gods from his little galley of a kitchen at Fisk, at Downings, in north Donegal. This is Tony’s battered fish, and the secret is the buttermilk.

Serves two

250g haddock
235ml buttermilk
For the batter:
100g flour
100g cornflour
10g cayenne
10g smoked paprika
500ml oil for frying
For the garnish:
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 red chillies, thinly sliced
sea salt, black pepper
For the dip:
200g natural yogurt
juice 1 lemon


1 Cut the haddock into strips, roughly finger sized. Cover the haddock in buttermilk and leave for 20 minutes.

2 Mix the flour, cornflour and spices together.

3 Heat oil to 190°C in a deep-fat fryer.

4 Drain the haddock and coat strips in the flour mix, about four strips at a time, and add them to the oil, cooking for around four minutes each until golden brown.

5 Once all the haddock strips have been cooked, transfer them to a serving bowl, and add thinly sliced spring onion and chillies. Season with a generous amount of sea salt and black pepper.

6 Mix the yogurt with lemon juice and season, then serve on the side as a dip.


Serves eight


225g short grain rice
1 litre milk, plus 200ml
100g caster sugar
50g butter
8 egg yolks
300ml double cream
150g crème fraîche
For the whiskey sauce:
450g caster sugar
180ml water
500ml double cream
100ml Irish whiskey
5ml (1 tsp) sea salt


1 Place the rice in cold water to cover and then bring to the boil, drain and refresh. Boil 1 litre of the milk, half the sugar and all the butter in a large pan with the rice. Once it reaches boiling point, turn down to a simmer. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until the rice is tender.

2 Beat the egg yolks and remaining caster sugar together in a bowl. Boil the cream with the remaining 200ml milk and pour onto the yolks, whisking until pale and creamy. Stir the mixture gradually into the pan containing the rice and cook on a low heat. Once it is suitably thick, take off the heat, stir in the crème fraîche and leave in the fridge to cool.

3 Whiskey sauce: heat sugar and water in a medium, clean, saucepan over a medium heat, for 2-3 minutes. The sugar will melt and small bubbles will start appearing. Don’t be tempted to stir, this can encourage the caramel to crystallize - just swirl it round using the handle.

4 Once the sugar has started boiling, after about 5 minutes, it should be light brown in colour. Continue boiling until it has become medium brown in colour. Remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the cream into the mixture. It will hiss and spit and seem to solidify but be patient and return to the heat for 2-3 minutes, then add whiskey. Stir through the salt and transfer to a glass jar or bowl and let cool to room temperature or pop in the fridge for 20 minutes.

5 To serve, spoon the rice pudding into glasses or bowls. Pour on whiskey caramel sauce and swirl.


Serves 10-12


1 litre milk
15ml (1 tbsp) butter
2 eggs
150g sugar
45ml (3 tbsp) cornflour
45ml (3 tbsp) plain flour
15ml (l tbsp) vanilla essence
1 blind-baked pastry case (I add 5ml (1 tsp) cinnamon to my own homemade butter pastry)
Ground cinnamon, to decorate


1 Bring the milk and butter to the boil in a medium saucepan. Really keep an eye on it, as the milk will boil over the second you look away.

2 Cream the eggs, sugar, cornflour, flour and vanilla essence together in a bowl. Add some of the hot milk to the egg mixture, then pour it all back into the pan. Heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring until the mixture thickens. Keep stirring and don’t allow the mixture to boil.

3 Pour into the pastry case. Leave to cool and set, then sprinkle generously with cinnamon before serving.