A historical perspective gives a lie to the contention that plant-based milks are just a modern fad, whose fortunes will wane as quickly as they have risen. After all, the milk of a coconut has been drunk ever since man first worked out how to crack its hard shell. Etymologically, milk was used as a term to describe the milk-like juices or saps from plants from the early 13th century. Even more intriguingly, the earliest recipe books in English contain references to the use of plant-based milks.
The Forme of Cury, written in 1390, includes a recipe for blank maunger, probably a dish derived from the Arabs but blander due to the paucity of spices available. Along with rice and capons, sugar, salt, this dish, often given to invalids to strengthen them up, used almond milk as its base. Utilis Coquinario, a cookbook written at the beginning of the 14th century instructs the reader on how to make butter of almond milk. In the earliest German cookbook, dating from around 1350, Das Buch von Guter Spise, almost a quarter of its recipes use almond milk.
Almonds were an expensive commodity, even though they were widely grown in England, three times the price of a pint of butter, putting them ordinarily beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. Butter and milk made from almonds were especially favoured by those who wished to observe the letter, if not the spirit, of the Church’s restrictions on the consumption of meat and dairy products during Lent. As they were plant-based, they could be enjoyed with a clear conscience.
Soya milk, made from the soybean, has an equally long pedigree, initially in China, and is the most widely recognised of the plant-based milks. First mentioned in Chinese texts from around 1350 and in recipes in cookbooks from the 17th century, it was also served hot in tofu shops and drunk for breakfast. The bean was “discovered” by occidentals in the late 19th century, the term “soy-bean milk” first appearing in a report produced by the US Department of Agriculture in 1897, comparing its attributes with those of cow’s milk.
An early advocate of the benefits of soya milk was Li Yuying who established the first manufacturing unit in Colombes in France in 1910 and held British and American patents for production processes. What to call it, though, was a question which mired soya milk producers in contentious litigation with authorities and dairy farmers for decades. The issue was only resolved in the United States in 1974 when the courts ruled that it was a “new and distinct food” rather than ersatz milk, while in Britain in the 1970s it had to be called “liquid food of plant origin” and then “soya plant-milk”.
The 1970s and 80s saw improvements in production techniques, enhancements to taste and consistency, and the development of Tetra Pak packaging extended shelf-life, helping soya milk to establish pre-eminence amongst other plant-based milks. The emergence of strong challengers, though, in the form of oat milk and, the new kid on the block, potato milk, looks set to change that.
Potato milk, available from on-line providers and, since February 2022, in Waitrose stores, is even more sustainable than any other plant-based milk currently available. According to its manufacturer, Swedish-based DUG, winner of the “Best Allergy-Friendly Product” in the 2021 World Food Innovation Awards, potatoes are twice as land efficient as other plant-based options and use 56 times less water than almonds. Dairy-free, and minus gluten, casein, fat, cholesterol, and soy, potatoes are a good source of vitamins D and B12 and the milk, which is very creamy and tastes good in coffee, is fortified with important vitamins and minerals.
All nut, bean, or water-base plant-based milks are made using a similar process. The main ingredient is soaked in water for several hours, before being blended into a puree which is then filtered to separate the milk from the plant matter. The milk is then sterilised by boiling and flavours are added to enhance the taste.
Plant-based milks have long been with us and will continue to offer us an alternative for years to come.