Sitting after New year in my sitting room isolating, I spotted my butter churn and tbought maybe a bit about butter maybe would be a nice topic to cover.
Butter in itself has founds its way into Brehon laws, trade and port accounts, myths and legends , Saints lives, and has its own social hierarchy in food that sustained many throughout the Irish ages. Butter was almost magical turning from a liquid to solid mass of butter. There were many superstitions and stories associated with butter.
How old is butter in the bog.
We grew up in Ireland with many stories of bog butter been found in Ireland which could be 5000 years old. But science and radiocarbon/isotope analysis is giving us a better picture and more precise time of when the butter was first made and placed in bogs.
There is much discussion about why butter was placed in bogs whether it was a votive offering, offering to the Gods, storage or flavours enhancement. But we do now know that butter was placed in bogs from the Iron Age onwards in Ireland. Old finds of butter have been dated by modern science back to 1600 BC up to 1700&1800 AD. There are over 500 bog finds of butter including a find of bog butter in Glenahilty bog just down the road by two local men. In fact we imagine butter to be yellow but bog butter as a white cheesy hard in texture, not what you imagine it to be.
Butter and Diet.
So now we know butter was definitely eaten, in fact the mainstay of the commoner diet was dairy, cereals made into bread, pottage,plants and fruit they could forage and grow, very little meat and some fish, but not as much fish as we thought. Whitemeats includes, curds, whey, buttermilk, cheeses, sweet and sour milk as part of their diet and hopefully some little butter.Often the butter was part of the rent payment so storage of the butter was necessary until rent time which in most cases was twice a year.
Mether, churns,bark,skins & cloth storage.
Steps in making butter
Butter was made with sour cream, cream that was skimmed from the milk. The milk was allowed to sit and cool, the cream rose to the top and was taken and placed in wooden churn, when enough cream was gather a lid was placed on top and the container which May been a hollowed out trunk, barrel like container was shaken until curds formed.
The dash churn consisted of a hole in the lid in which the plunger could be plunged up and down until lumps of butter began to form. The butter is then washed in cold water to get rid of the butter milk
Making butter according to Low1845 and Baldwin 1888 is described and cited in Downey et al 2021 as follows
Cooling,Separation, Ripening,Churning , Dressing and Curing . The only difference is using fresh cream and salt to make the sweet cream butter we know today by omitting the long ripening process.
Breakfast of kings
According to Kelly 1997 & Sexton 1998 butter is mentioned in the soft food of fosterage in Brehon laws which includes the following.
- Egg yolks
So now we have some foods that work together, porridge/frumenty can be served with the addition of butter and honey if you so wish, Bread served with curds/soft cheese, with added flavours of butter and honey. Now we have a breakfast of kings as depending what hierarchy you come from as foster child.
Whether you should receive butter depending on your rank in society as part of hospitality is also covered in law.
According to Sexton 1998 porridge and frumenty go hand in hand, so cracked wheat, milk and whatever flavours you wish go well together, so melted butter on top works well with some honey if you want sweet or wild garlic and cress if you want savoury. The joy of experimental archaeology and living is trying new dishes out.
Bread and butter
Bread was mostly made of barley and oats unless you are lord or a king, high ranking in society or the church you may have wheaten bread.
Laws determined the width and thickness, bread about 12’’ inches in diameter and thickness of man’s little finger weighing about 30 ounces, there are others but the 30 ounce weight has been mentioned in eccclesticall bread making in Ireland and England This would have been regarded as your daily allowance for a man while the woman’s portion was half that by law. Sexton,1998. Murphy & Stout 2015 Thick dense bread would benefit from butter, curds , soft cheese, green onion, wild garlic, honey, lard ,bacon ,fish, egg, menadach . Ovens have been an issue but baking bread in cast iron pot turned upside down or with a lid has worked for centuries including my grandmother time and my fathers childhood . So different types of bread existed flat, unleavened and leavened maybe from brewing side of things but the one thing they all have in common is that bread and butter together provides good nourishment through the Irish ages.
Wild garlic, ransoms or creamh l harvest in spring time and make a garlic butter with, roll it out flat between two sheets of grease proof paper and store in my freezer to add to salmon, trout, pottages, frumenty, oatcakes, flat breads of all types, just a handy trick. Brushing butter on cooked salmon two minutes before it’s finished cooking if roasting is sublime, don’t burn your fingers from its hot flesh, a story in itself, wrapped salmon or trout which has butter enclosed in the leaves on embers of a turf fire ……
As you can guess my library is determine by food in Ireland , so over the weekend of isolation I have read and enjoyed these books while dipping into others, my prep for my Irish feast for investiture in July beginning with just butter, from my references , you can see my book collection is another story for another day. Ps have just ordered another
Downey, D. & Downey,L & O Donovan , D. 2021. Historical Irish Dairy Products. Wordwell Ltd. Dublin
Kelly,F.1997Early Irish Farming,Dublin Instuite for Advanced studies. Dublin.
Lucas, A T. 1989 Cattle in Ancient Ireland. Brethius Press.Kilkenny.
Murphy,M & Stout, M.2015. Agriculture and Settlement in Ireland. Four Court Press. Dublin .
Sexton, R 1998. Porridge Gruels and Breads in Early Medieval Munster edited by Monk, M.A & Sheehan . J. Cork University Press. Cork.