Monday, June 9, 2014

THE MILKMAN by Marilyn

The milkman. Not "my" milkman.
Ultra-pasteurized, shelf-stable milk. Missing all the happy enzymes.
So I’ve been researching raw milk and I’ve determined that making my yogurt from raw milk is a much better idea*. The only whole milk I’ve been able to find locally has been the ultra-high-pasteurized (UHP) kind in the “shelf-stable” packaging. Since UHP milk is heated to 280 degrees, which apparently kills all the good bacteria too. And good bacteria is needed for making the most nutritious yogurt.  

Now, I live in the middle of farming community. Dairy cows sometimes take detours through my front yard. How hard would it be to find fresh local milk?

My neighbor Irina was getting fresh milk and sour cream from her housekeeper. Maybe the housekeeper had extra to sell. I checked. No, in fact, the housekeeper’s cow is pregnant, so no more milk from that source for the next three months.

I was missing my yogurt. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to make any more with the UHP milk. For more than a week, that meant eating my homemade granola dry. Crunch, crunch, crunch – very crunchy!

Irina suggested I check with my intrepid landlady Jenny. Jenny, who is related to most of the Ticos on our mountain, has been incredibly helpful with everything we’ve needed. And her father raises cows. I e-mailed Jenny.

The milk box from the 1950s
that sat on our back steps
She said that the milkman drove up the mountain regularly – but not necessarily on a regular schedule. Milkman!! Images of the sparkling white panel truck that pulled up to our house in the 1950s floated in my head. Twice a week, the milkman
I had fond memories of milk delivered
n glass bottles to our doorstep.
delivered glass bottles of milk and cream to a galvanized steel milk box on our back steps. When we finished the milk, the empties would go back in the box for pick-up. It was a great system. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Jenny said that the next time she saw the milkman, she’d stop him and ask him to go to our house. Living on a side road, we don’t get “Upe!”-d (oo-pey’) very often. “Upe!” is the call that vendors make as they stand outside your gate or door. It is short for Guadalupe, which is short for Our Lady of Guadalupe, who apparently is the patron saint of door-to-door salespeople. Who knew?

Only once, when we were hiking up the mountain and actually had some colones on us, were we able to take advantage of one of the vendors who was selling potatoes and tomatoes from the back of his truck. So I was looking forward to having the milkman “upe” me from our driveway at some undifferentiated time in the relatively near future.

The Milkman Cometh

But a few days ago, as I was driving home from Grecia, I saw a small Toyota pickup stopped along the road. The back of the pick-up was packed with stainless steel canisters. Could this be the elusive milkman? I pulled over and this guy walked up to my car window. “Tiene leche?” I asked. “Si,” he replied.

He's not "my" milkman, but you get the idea.
Then he asked me if I had any containers which of course I didn’t. What was amazing about this part of our conversation is that he was speaking Spanish and I was understanding it. “Questo?” I asked. “Mil dos por dos litres,” he replied. “Dos litres,” I said. I was getting raw milk. Yippee!!

My Mom Is Rolling Over in Her Grave

The milkman then got out two baggies. He opened the first baggie, sticking his hand into it to separate the sides. I tried not to think of where his hands had been. From somewhere in the truck he produced a ladle and opened one of the canisters. He ladled milk into the baggie that he’d set on a scale, then deftly tied the bag and repeated the process.

I attempted to focus on the fact that he had a full truckload of canisters and that he probably sold milk this way on a daily basis and most likely the majority of his customers were still alive. I tried to keep the distant dire warnings of my mom out of my head; she was pretty nuts about sanitation in all forms. But then I remembered that my favorite thing to do for most of my life was rebel against my mom.

The milkman brought over the two filled bags and I paid him. He made change with the same hands that had touched the inside of my milk baggies, so I figured he’d been making change with those hands all morning. Still, I had my raw milk and I was going to make yogurt with it.

Making My Yogurt

When I brought the baggies into the house, one of them began leaking, so I quickly stuck them in a ziplock bag and put them in the fridge. I’d make my yogurt in the morning.

The next morning, Paul went into the kitchen to make coffee. “Honey,” he called out to me. “Do you know why the kitchen floor is all wet?” “Maybe I dropped an ice cube earlier,” I said. “No, this is more than one ice cube.”

We have white tile on our floors, so it was hard to see that what was leaking out of the fridge was my raw milk. I hadn’t zipped the ziplock zippy enough and it had tipped. Milk was pouring out. I grabbed the bag and Paul handed me a bowl. I was able to rescue about half of the leaky bag. Time to start my yogurt.
One thing very interesting about making raw milk vs. pasteurized yogurt is how much you heat the milk. It almost sounds counterintuitive. Raw milk is only heated to 110° to preserve the beneficial enzymes and bacteria but pasteurized milk has to be heated to 181° because there are no more beneficial enzymes left to protect the milk from nasty bacteria. This is not the most scientific explanation, I know, but you get the idea (if you want a much more comprehensive explanation,  this is the best website:  

I heated the milk (what was left of it) to 110° and then added a bit of it to the two tablespoons of yogurt I’d kept from my last batch. After the saved yogurt was incorporated into about a cup of warmed milk, I added that cup to the rest of the milk, and dumped it all into my crockpot, which I’d turned on to the “warm” setting about an hour before. I unplugged the crockpot, wrapped it in two beach towels and left it alone for about 10 hours.
Two large beach towels wrapped around the crock pot
keep the fermenting milk at the right temperature.

That evening, I unswaddled the crockpot and lifted the lid. It was yogurt! Much runnier than the UHP yogurt I’ve been making (I was expecting that from my research), but that just means more whey to use in my sourdough bread and sauerkraut. After straining and chilling I had my first batch of raw milk yogurt. It was delicious. My granola was happy to be pared with it. I ate it for breakfast four days in a row and I stayed healthy (probably healthy-er!!)

I should have told the milkman where I lived, so he’d come down my hill and “Upe” us whenever he irregularly sold milk. At home I’ll have a container to provide – no more leaky baggies. It’s not the sanitized version of the milkman I’d remembered in my childhood, but, hey, this is Costa Rica. Pura Vida!

Another Raw Milk Source

One of my neighbors told me that there's a dairy vendor at the feria -- a regular source of raw milk. I couldn't wait until Friday! I brought a thermos with me just in case. Didn't want another leaky plastic bag. I got to the feria when it opened at noon. Some of the vendors were still setting up. I visited my favorite fruit and veggie vendors, bought some seafood and headed down to the milk booth. Darn! The booth was still covered with a tarp, and there was no truck backed up to the site. I had other things to do, so I couldn't hang around and wait. No raw milk yogurt this week.

The next week I was busy on Friday and couldn't get to the feria until Saturday afternoon. On Saturdays the feria closes at 2, and I was cutting it close, so I rushed down to the dairy guy first. Darn! He was cleaning his empty refrigerator case; not a drop of milk in sight.

At one of the cheese vendors I bought a bottle of plain yogurt. It was terrific. If I wasn't on such a do-it-yourself kick, I'd probably just keep buying yogurt from these folks. But I love the alchemy of having milk turn into delicious yogurt right in my own kitchen. So I knew I would keep trying. I hadn't seen the milkman on our hill in weeks, so I'd have to keep looking for the dairy vendor at the feria.

On my third try, I hit pay dirt (probably not the best metaphor for a dairy product). Leche entero? Si. Dos literos por favor. Oh, and I also picked up two baggies of sour cream -- and it's the thick, pale yellow tart kind that I used to get at my grandma's when I was a kid. I was so happy.

I've just made a batch of yogurt from my new source of raw milk. It is wonderful.

Happy homemade granola topped with nutritious raw milk yogurt.

My granola is going to be thrilled.

* . NOTE: you can find just as many, if not more, websites devoted to the “dangers” of consuming unpasteurized milk – but how many are sponsored by factory dairies? I’m choosing to focus on the benefits.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I had several errands to run in downtown Grecia. I found a parking place on a side street and parallel parked with the help of a Watchiman (or Guachiman or Cuidacarro) one of many mostly older gentlemen who guard your car while you’re shopping. Watchimen, wearing official-looking Day-Glo vests, work for tips. (Realtor Ivo Henfling wrote a comprehensive article about Los Guachimanes click here.) The first two times I’d parked, I’d thought they worked for the city and I didn’t tip them. I know better now and have begun tipping between 500 and 1000 colones ($1-2), depending on how long I’m going to be.

Watchiman from Ivo's Blog
After about an hour of walking around town, loaded down with two large shopping bags, I returned to my car, only to find a flat tire. Before I even opened the way-back, I knew I wouldn’t find the lug nut wrench.

(A few months ago, we took our artist friend/neighbor and his monoprinting equipment down to the art festival in San Jose. Right before we arrived at the festival, he slapped his forehead. “I forgot the handle!”
Mi esposo Paul, always one to think on his feet, said, “You should be able to use our lug nut wrench.” He was right. The wrench made a perfect handle and our friend was able to do his demos. He promised to return the wrench once he got back to Grecia the next day. He didn’t. And we forgot to remind him.)

In the car’s way-back, not only was there no wrench, the jack was missing too. Then I thought back to a noise I’d heard several weeks earlier. I’d fallen asleep reading in bed and was partially awakened by what sounded like a car door opening and shutting outside of the bedroom window. The next morning, I asked Paul, “Did you open the car door sometime last night?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, I was sure I heard the car door open and close. I must have dreamed it.”

We didn’t think to check the car. We are really terrible about locking the car door; we rarely locked our cars in any of the places we lived in the states, so we never developed that habit. And because where we live now is basically a dead-end rural road, it didn’t seem that critical. But we’d heard that a few of our neighbors on the main road had had their jacks stolen recently. Apparently we had too. (Note to future thieves: we now lock our car -- mostly -- and we almost always take the keys out of the front door when we go to bed. So if you come to steal our new jack and the car is locked and the keys aren't in the front door, try again tomorrow.)

So now I was facing a flat tire with nothing available to fix it. The Watchiman seemed to think that a teenager who lived on the same street might be able to help. He couldn’t. So the Watchiman and the teenager and I walked a down the block to a lumber shop. The lumber guy couldn’t help either. A young man pulled up in Toyota Corolla. The Watchiman explained my dilemma. “I think I have a jack,” he said. In English. My day was looking up. Currently my Spanish works best at the butcher shop or the farmer’s market. I’ve focused my studies on grocery shopping, not car repairing.

Toyota Corolla guy dug around in his trunk and pulled out a Toyota Corolla-sized jack. We walked back to my vehicle, a Subaru Forester SUV. Toyota Corolla guy pumped the little jack all the way up. About four inches remained between the top of the jack and the bottom of the car. The jack was just too small. Moments later, the Toyota Corolla guy flagged down another guy in a shiny red Suzuki SUV. The Suzuki guy, who wore an official Municipalidad de Grecia shirt, had a much more substantial jack and it worked. Soon Toyota Corolla guy (whose name was David) was jacking up my car.

I hated to play the part of “helpless female” but all I could do was sit on the stoop of a small restaurant and watch.

The Suzuki guy stood on the sidewalk with the Watchiman. They watched.

The teenager who lived on the block watched.

Various neighbor-ladies watched. From a polite distance.

David removed the nuts on the tire. He tugged at the tire. It wouldn’t come off. He whacked the tire with the Corolla jack and it finally loosened. David rolled the flat tire over to me, pointing to a large nail head in the treads. “Well, that’s your problem,” he said.

“You are my guardian angel,” I said, all helpless female.

David picked up my spare and tried to line it up with the bolts. The car wasn’t jacked up high enough for the spare. The jack was pumped to its limit. So David sent the teenager down to the lumber shop for a block of wood. The teenager came back and David lowered the car and slipped the block of wood on the jack, re-jacking the car up. He tried to line up the spare on the bolts again. Still too low. He sent the teenager back to the lumber shop for more wood. The teenager came back with a meter-long piece of 2x4 with big nails sticking out of it.

David looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t cry,” he said, peering up at the ever-darkening sky, “the rain hasn’t arrived yet.” It being the rainy season and it being the afternoon when the rains typically came.

Waving the nail-studded 2x4 in the air, David spoke to the teenager in rapid Spanish that I couldn’t parse but figured it had something to do with the inappropriateness of the 2x4. The teenager took the 2x4 and headed back to the lumber shop. He returned with several chunks of wood of various thicknesses. David smiled. He turned to me, “Don’t cry,” he said for the second time. “This is going to work.”

I had no intention of crying. But I was grateful that someone who wasn’t me was handling all of this.
David slid the spare under the car and then stacked up the chunks of wood on the jack and began pumping. The parts of the jack handle that were supposed to connect to make the handle long enough were smashed in, so he couldn’t put them together. To get the proper leverage, he had to push the handle down with his foot and then pull it up with his hands. Slow going. Just as the car finally seemed high enough, the blocks slipped and the car came crashing down. Fortunately, the spare tucked under the frame kept the car from crashing to the street.

By now about 25 minutes had passed. David’s cell phone rang. He answered it and spoke again in rapid Spanish that I was unable to catch. He smiled at me, “If we’re lucky, the rain will come soon.”

 I moaned. “That’s supposed to be funny, right?” I said. He brushed the grit off his knees.

“My jeans are dirty,” he said.

“Lo siento,” I said. I’m sorry. “When you’re finished I’ll buy you a cervesa,” I said.

“Not necessary. Today you; tomorrow me,” said David. He smiled warmly. Very Pura Vida of him. 

An older man showed up, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Without speaking, he took the little Toyota Corolla jack, grabbed a stack of wood blocks and slid everything under the back of the car. He laid down on the asphalt and carefully placed his lit cigarette on the ground next to him.

Now all I could think about was: there is a lit cigarette smoldering beneath my gas tank.

The little jack had a crank handle. Cigarette guy had to manipulate the crank handle from his position on the ground. It was very awkward. While he was doing that, David began re-pumping the larger jack. So now there were two guys pumping my car higher and higher. And one lit cigarette under the gas tank.

With both jacks holding the car up, David rolled the spare over again. This time it aligned perfectly with the bolts. “Not raining yet,” he said, turning to me with a grin.

Cigarette guy slid out from under the car, picking up the remainder of his smoke and replacing it on his lower lip.

“Gracias, muchas gracias,” I said. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

With the spare on, the guys picked up their various tools and wood blocks. I gave David a hug and slipped a 20 mil note into his hand. “Cervesas para todos,” I said.

“Forty-five minutes,” he said. He looked up at the sky. “No rain yet. Now,” he said, “drive very carefully and get your tire fixed right away.”

I thanked all the guys again and got into the car. I pulled away, blowing kisses to my guardian angels as the first big plops of rain hit my windshield.