To many British people it comes as a surprise that the French, who are so particular about food quality and taste, tend to buy UHT, as opposed to fresh, milk.
It is hard to pin down one reason but the difference exists – a 2007 study found that 95.5% of milk consumed here was UHT, compared to 8.4% in the UK.
However, this is not unique to France. Neighbouring Spain, Portugal and Belgium all have similar levels but the picture varies across Europe. The level in Greece was just 0.9%.
The term UHT is used in both English and French, but in French stands for upérisation à haute température. Upérisation is from “ultra pasteurisation”, but where pasteurisation, discovered by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century, involves heating for 15-20 seconds at 72-85C then cooling, UHT milk is heated to 140-150C for five seconds maximum before being cooled.
It was developed in Switzerland in the 1950s.
One reason Britons may prefer fresh milk is the tradition of the milkman. Until the 1990s, most people were used to having milk delivered each morning to the doorstep. This has made a comeback in some areas.
Similar national deliveries do not exist in France although fresh milk self-service vending machines have appeared (there are several in Aveyron) and initiatives with farmers delivering fresh milk in small lorries around local villages do exist.
Another theory is that Britons like to drink their tea with milk and the more subtle taste of tea compared to coffee means you taste the difference more.
Also, the traditional way to drink coffee in France is black.
Similarly, French people do not usually drink glasses of milk.
However they do use milk for sauces, crêpes, beignets… so having long-life cartons handy in the kitchen is practical.
The fact that it keeps without refrigeration is also practical in a warmer climate and it reduces distribution costs and waste.
UHT milk in France is marked as keeping for three months unopened, although it is actually usable for six to nine months.
The process kills all the micro-organisms in the milk and deactivates most of the enzymes present, which slightly changes the taste.
If you want it fresh, look for lait frais in the chiller. In reality, this is actually pasteurised or micro-filtered, the latter being a newer process which filters out bacteria without heating.
This is said to give a taste closest to lait cru – milk straight from the cow, which you can find at farms, by home delivery, from farmers’ markets or healthfood shops.