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Love, Luck & Irish Butter

by Ari Weinzweig

“When your teeth hit the bread, the butter better be hitting your gums.” – Ivan Allen

Farmers, Firkins, Fairies, Fair Trade & Full Flavor

Kerrygold-In-Love-With-ButterI’ll not forget my first trip to Ireland. I went over, on my own and knowing no one there, in June of 1989. Although I can’t say I could tell at the time it was happening, that first visit was the start of a lifelong love affair with the place. I’m not really at all sure why it happened. I suppose in truth it doesn’t really matter—the thing is that it did. I guess that’s usually the way that sort of stuff unfolds. Whether you’re knowingly ready or not, something clicks and you find yourself, planned or not, with a connection that works, one that continues to build as you get to know more of the details and the depth behind the initial experience.

Since this essay is about butter, it’d be convenient to tell you that that was the driving force behind my attraction to the Emerald Isle. But in truth, at the time butter was barely even on my list. It is on there now though; as can happen with any long time lover, the initial thrill of the first encounter has long since passed but you continue to find small, significant stuff you love about your love. Sometimes the things you come upon later on actually turn out to be more meaningful than what got you going so good in the first place. That’s where I’d put butter in the context of Ireland and I. I barely thought anything of it when I first got to the island. Today it’s regularly but very real treat—eating a thick slice of Irish Brown Soda bread from the Bakehouse spread with Irish cultured butter is a really amazing, so, so simple, soooo, soooo good that . . . you might find your attentions and affections drawn toward the Irish by bread and butter alone.

While I’m on the subject of butter, and before I go back into history—my own and Ireland’s—I should tell you that in a way that I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world Irish people love their butter. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that when you bring butter to the table Irish people get a glow about them in a way kids over here would do when you bring a bowl of ice cream. By contrast, butter here in the States seems to make a lot of people nervous; we hide the fact that we like it, or ask for more almost apologetically. Irishmen may, I’m sure, watch their weight as we do, but they don’t seem to let that slow down their beer drinking nor their butter eating in the least. I should have known that butter in Ireland was a different thing when, on my first visit to Ballymaloe House, the late Ivan Allen shared an Irish saying with me. “When your teeth hit the bread,” Ivan said with this huge smile and ironic Irish twinkle, “the butter better be hitting your gums.”

Yes, There Really is Great Food in Ireland

Because I didn’t have the highest set of expectations for Irish food when I first went, I was caught completely off guard by the quality of Irish cooking. In hindsight, I’m sure the positive surprise of it is probably one of the reasons that I first fell in love with the place.

So . . . it’s nineteen years ago now I went to Ireland for the first time, taking with me all the same sort of mental images of green rolling hills, bright smiling faces, leprechauns and the like—you know, the stereotypes that most everyone else around here has before they’ve been able to really learn more about the place in person. Having been back probably fifteen times or more since, I will say that there are definitely some beautiful green landscapes and lots of smiles being shared. And I’d guess that if you happen to come across some, the leprechauns are surely very likeable. But what I came to know by spending a lot of time there is that Ireland is a country that’s infinitely more complex than the surface level stuff someone decided to use to market the island to American tourists. The politics, the pubs and the poets are fairly well known, and for good reason. But beneath, and in addition to, all that, it’s a place of great power, amazing history, stunning sadness, starkly stony people less landscapes that look back into Ireland’s dark, poverty stricken, but also fascinating, powerful past.

The people really are special—I’ve traveled a lot and I will truly tell you that the Irish aren’t really like any other group I’ve come across. They’ve got a unique, to my experience, blend of extreme joy, humor, generosity, wit, and wonderment that’s tightly woven in with an equally extreme mixture of melancholy, sadness, oppression, destruction and an enticing degree of darkness. For whatever reason I like the way that the Irish seem to live both the light and the dark; the way they manage to bring the two together so seamlessly in their every day lives. I guess in part it’s probably the same reason I love mournful music and sad stories—something in the depth of emotion they convey connects with me.

Thinking back it makes good sense that I’d have fallen in love. When I took that first Irish trip, back in ’89, I was particularly open to that emotional connection. It wasn’t the easiest time in my life, and traveling on my own then felt a lot more alone than it does today when one can get on email in most every remote small town or call whoever you want on the cell phone while driving through the middle of nowhere (other than most of Vermont). When I arrived at the airport in Dublin, I knew no one and no one knew me. I spent a couple days there, walking around, drinking tea, looking for (and finding) good food, visiting the beautiful nearby port of Dun Laoghire, getting out into the neighborhoods to see the canals and the colleges. I love the Jewish Museum there.

From there I spent nearly three weeks going round the southern arc of the country back up the west coast to Galway and Connemara in a little gray rented Opel. I’m not sure why but I can still remember the exact order of the trip and pieces of each visit. Cheese was my first focus—one of the historical mysteries of Irish eating is that after thousands of years of cheesemaking in the countryside, by the middle of the 20th century the Irish seem to completely have stopped making traditional cheese (I’m not counting the made-for-the-supermarket factory stuff). But by the time I’d arrived that was starting to change and much of that trip was arranged around visits to these new cheesemakers. With that in mind, I stopped first to meet Olivia Goodwillie, who was and still is making a nice, Wensleydale-like cheese (one we’ve never actually brought here) called Lavistown. She’d gotten going in 1983, the year after we’d opened the Deli. Next up I stopped to see Jane and Louis Grubb, who started making the very lovely Cashel Blue cheese (which we do carry) in 1984. They’re not far from the very impressive Rock of Cashel (Google away if you don’t’ know what that is) in Tipperary, well worth a stop—both the historic sites and the cheese if you’re over that way.

From there I drove down to Ballymaloe (pronounced “Bally-mah-loo”) House, near Cobh (pronounced “cove”), near the coast south of Cork City. Ballymaloe was then, and remains today, the heart, soul and center of the Irish culinary revival. There I got to meet the amazing Allen family, tasted and talked traditional Irish food for pretty much the whole two days I was there. Lest you wonder why got along so well, I probably need only tell you that all the Allens are incredibly generous, kind, curious and hold themselves to very high standards in all they do. To know that we’re kindred spirits you probably need only to read this quote from Myrtle Allen’s forward to the second edition of “The Ballymaloe Cookbook” back in 19==. “If I could start a fashion,” she wrote, “it would be to recapture some forgotten flavours, or to preserve some that may soon die.”

From there I headed west to visit two more artisan cheesemakers; the Fergusons at Gubbeen on their fifth generation farm out near Schull, the south-westernmost point of Ireland, and then, up the coast a bit, to see Veronica and Norman Steele at Milleens on the barren, but very beautiful, Beara Peninsula. It was at Gubbeen that I met Jane Scotter, since departed but at the time, a partner in Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Jane and I stood out in front of the old farmhouse, watching her kids play, shyly sharing stories of artisan cheeses we admired, while waiting somewhat anxiously to hear back from the doctor’s office in town about her nanny who’d been taken to hospital for what I think was appendicitis. I feel bad for the nanny (no worries—she recovered nicely) but at the same time it was certainly a fortuitous connection to be making. Through that chance meeting, came my relationship to Randolph Hodgson and the rest of the cheese and people at Neal’s Yard. (If companies can be friends—and although I’ve never thought about it til just now, I don’t see why they can’t—Zingerman’s and Neal’s Yard would quickly qualify.)

I can’t remember the exact order of things in subsequent visits to Ireland over the years as well as I do that first fall–in-love-visit, but I’ve been back many times. I’ve gone to see Donal Creedon who makes the magically amazing oatmeal at Macroom. Driven up to Donegal in the northwest, which I still think is one of the most mystically superb places I’ve ever been. I’ve eaten oysters in Galway, been to small farmer’s markets all over the country, bought cheese at Sheridan’s great little cheese shop in Dublin, eaten bread from dozens of different bakeries, seen salmon farms off the coast, watched the cheesemaking at a half dozen different creameries.

Although the butter was there throughout I didn’t really pay it proper attention until this past year. It started in the spring when I met up with the folks at the Irish Dairy Board, and through them with Peter Foynes, the man behind the Butter Museum in Cork City. I love great little museums and I love learning seemingly obscure bits of culinary history and Peter was well established in both realms. And from that entrée, I got the opportunity go to Ireland for five days for the express purpose of learning about Irish butter (I know, it’s a rough job but . . .). The butter has been a bright spot in my eating ever since—I’m not sure if it’s too corny to say but . . . why not . . . its bright golden color (“it’s sunny” one good friend who’s American but lived in Dublin for many years and is even more in love the place than I am, said spontaneously when I asked) is indicative of the bright state of the Ireland right now. Without a doubt, the deliciously complex and compelling nature of both its history and its flavor have reaffirmed and reenergized the love affair I started nearly twenty years ago.

Old And New Tales Of Butter And Beyond

My timing in going to Ireland that first time was good. Looking back on things, 1989 could well have been the tail end of an era and the early seeds of a new one being planted in the Irish food world. Still, it was very different from what’s going on today. John and Sally McKenna, in the Bridgestone Guide for 2007, wrote that, “In the Irish agricultural world of the late 1980s, the beef and dairy industries were kings of all they surveyed. Darina Allen (Myrtle’s daughter in law and the leading figure in Irish traditional food today) could stand up at the first Kinsale Food Forum of 1989, make a plea for there to be support for artisan-scale producers, and find herself shouted down by the beef and dairy barons . . . . “ Although it probably doesn’t seem that way when they put dates into history books, eras always overlap—the foundation stones have are almost always laid long before anyone really realizes it; and at the same time the old-almost always stays with us for ages after anyone later reports it being “over.” For me, with Ireland the change is, not surprisingly, centered around the food, but it’s pretty clear to me that the food is merely—or maybe mostly—indicative of what was and is going on at every level of Irish life. While the people weren’t living in poverty in the ‘80s, Ireland was far from a rich country. At some point not long before ’89 I’m sure it was probably the poorest state in the Europe Union. Go back two hundred years and poverty was the main themes of Irish life.

I apologize to anyone who knows Irish history, for stating what’s already so painfully obvious, but it took going to Ireland in person to break down a lot inaccurate assumptions I’d always made about the place. I think my first big revelation about was that although I’d completely erroneously assumed it to be some sort of “western extension” of England, which is of course completely and totally wrong. It’s embarrassing to admit that I thought that, but it’s true. Really, it was just bad history on my part. I mean I knew something about how the Irish and the English had fought so bitterly for so long, but I’d failed to really grasp why and what was going on. It was only when I got there that it came clear to me that, although it was never formally a colony (but rather a Kingdom in its own right, ruled from London, and then a part of the United Kingdom) modern Ireland is really in many ways a post-colonial culture, in which context, I realized, it’d be more accurate to view it as I might India or Kenya amazing places with ancient cultures of their own yet clearly struggling to balance the externally imposed role of colonists combined with centuries of tradition that were there long before. In part, I think that I, and I’d guess others who failed to pay proper attention, were fooled because in this case the colonialism was colorless—while antagonism ran high, it was all white-on-white. In any case, the relationship between the English and the Irish is a complex one that I’d guess encompasses every emotion one can come up with.

That it was very different from England became ever clearer the further west I went—you can’t miss the emptiness of the place. In England you’re lucky to find a few acres of land that has nothing organized on it, but out in West Cork and up the coast I found myself driving miles where I’d see no more than a single car! Highways were few and far between—most all the roads were small two lane paths with tight stone fences beside them, the pace of life was far slower, and there was a LOT of rocky, bleak, desolate-in-a-way-that-I-loved, open space. When I drove through old stone villages that were completely abandoned from the time of the famine . . . the point was made. Ireland was unlike any place else I’d ever been; life, I learned, was a complex overlay of ancient Celtic culture and English post colonialism. Modern but not so much so; Western but about as far to the left of logical as Ireland is to the rest of Europe when you look at a map. To me it’s this strange sort of blend; both first world and third world at the same time; up-to-the-minute but still anciently, antiquely rooted in some relics of another mystical, pagan era that I knew little or nothing about. All of which brings me back to the butter.

The Past – Ireland as Land of Butter

Butter has always been a big thing in Ireland. Cows have lived on the island since about 3500 BC, and the ancient Celts are actually believed to have introduced butter making techniques into much of Europe. Historically, the dairy cow was at the head of the Irish hierarchy of agricultural importance; cows were the primary sign of wealth. The word for “road” in old Irish is bothar meaning “cow track.” “Boy” in Irish is buachaill is ‘cow-boy’ – the name given because boys did the herding. Taking the attention to language detail one step further, to get a glimpse into a quiet but quintessential difference between Irish and English cultures, take note of the respective roots of the word “farmer.” The old Irish is bóaire, a blend of “air” meaning “one of status,” (as in someone who takes care of something) and “bó” meaning cow. By contrast the English roots of farmer are in “firma,” as in “contract”—the term developed out of legal agreements.

Looking at butter back in Irish history, legend has it that St. Brigid was actively involved in running the dairy of her mother’s ‘master’ and is said to have fed strangers in need on butter back in the 5th century. She also said to have been able to magically renew stores of butter. For her good work she became the patron saint of dairy workers. Back in 1645 Dean Massari, visiting from his native Italy made note that “butter is used abundantly with all kinds of food.” To quote author Brid Mahon, from her Land of Milk and Honey, “When times were good [butter] was on every table, served at every meal and enjoyed on festive occasions. Even when times were bad it always given to visitors.” New Year’s Day, she relates, was euphemistically known as the “Day of the Buttered Bread”—bread and butter sandwiches were set on the front stoops of the houses and young people would go door to door like American kids do for candy on Halloween, taking the sandwiches as a talisman against the hunger which has played such a big part in Irish history.

With all that in mind, I probably should have been less surprised to learn that the highest form of success for medieval Irishmen was cattle theft. In his book “The Sign of the Cow,” Colin Rynne writes that, ”Amongst all ranks of early Irish warriors cattle raiding was both a duty and a privilege.” Think Wisconsin but instead of German/Swiss/Scandinavian sobriety you have the addition of medieval Irish mysticism and marauding. Or maybe India but instead of calm deference for cows you have wildness associated with whiskey drinking and Celtic warriors. Coming from a culture, as I did, where leaning and study always came first, it’s pretty much beyond my ability to even conceive of such a thing. But there it is—if you wanted to come out on top in the ego sweepstakes, you’d best get good at cribbing cattle. Newly chosen Irish kings were actually socially obligated to (fairly quickly after their appointments) to run a royal cattle raid; the more cows you could take from your enemies, the more prestige you built in the community.

(In a modern day context you might be interested to know that the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in Ireland comes from cows and cattle belching.)

Building the Butter Culture

It’s no accident that butter became the currency of Irish culture. Ireland in general and Munster (the southernmost of the four Irish provinces and home to County Cork; Ulster, Connaught and Leinster are the other three) has an ideal climate for butter making. As John McKenna told me last spring, “We’re very good at growing grass here.” Munster’s annual rainfall is the highest in Europe; better still for butter makers, the rain generally falls in steady but moderate amounts, rather than in the form of huge storms—Munster has more rainy days than anywhere else in Ireland. The twelfth century writer, Gerald of Wales, wrote, “This is the most temperate of all countries. You will seldom see snow here, and then it lasts for only a short time. The grass is green in the fields in winter, just the same as in summer. The country enjoys the freshness and the mildness of spring almost all the year round.”

Coolness during summer months makes it easier to grow grass well, and the mildness of the winter make it possible to keep the cows out in the pastures most (though not always all) of the year round. Interestingly, and indicatively, there is no word for “hay” in the old Irish language because cutting hay—so common most places where cows have to be fed in the barns most of the year—simply didn’t exist. The Irish did make use of the technique of “transhumance,” or what the French and Swiss call “Alpage.” In Ireland it was known as bouleying—cows were moved up to mountains in the warmer months, allowing the grass in the lower pastures to regenerate. Butter and cheese were made in small huts put up in the mountains by shepherds much as it’s still done in the Alps today.

That said, it’s important to understand that fresh butter was then still a seasonal product (as was fresh milk) up until the refrigeration became common in every day life (which was later in Ireland than many other places—most people in their fifties that I’ve asked about it, there tell me they remember electricity coming to their village.) Butter was made regularly throughout the spring and summer months. Generally that was known “as “fresh butter” and was not salted. Peter Rhymes wrote in “At the Sign of the Cow,” “Butter, cheese and milk boiled and sweetened with honey, were known as summer foods.” By contrast, he said, “Porridge, stirrabouts and condiments made from oats mixed with butter, milk and honey were eaten all year round.”

It’s interesting to me that modern Irish agriculture settled in around butter rather than cheesemaking—both were big parts of ancient Irish life, but cheese had pretty much disappeared from the Irish countryside by the time we actually got started with the 17thth century. Butter by contrast has been big straight through. No one I’ve asked has really ever confidently given me an answer about why this might have happened (I know that saying that here is inviting one to come though—if you have thoughts send them my way!)

Which brings us briefly to the story of Cork as THE butter export capital of the world; in the 18th and early 19th century more butter was exported from the port of Cork than anywhere else in the world. Let’s see . . . think Paris and fashion, Detroit and cars . . . Although globalization is a buzzword today, it’s hardly a new thing; the Irish made large quantities of butter and exported it people all over the Empire, who in turn, ate an awful lot of it. Witness, even in our own day, Jude Walton, who’s from England but has lived and worked with us here at Zingerman’s for fifteen years or so now. “Do you eat much butter?” I asked her off handedly one morning. “Oh yeah!” she paused with high enthusiasm. “It’s the lifeblood of my diet. If I don’t have bread and butter I have nothing to eat.” She paused for about sixteen seconds, then plowed right back in. “Oh God yeah,” she added, “Butter is probably one of the only foods I could say that I eat every day.” So if you imagine that approach, magnify it by a few million British people who’d been “planted” on the land all over the globe including the tropics where there was no butter to be made, and think about how much butter had to be produced and shipped to them to keep them as well supplied, you’ll be getting the idea. Remember too you had to feed all the guys on the ships that were carrying the butter, and the standard ration for Elizabethan era seaman included 1/4 pound of butter a day.

I don’t have room here to get into all the details of it but you can read more on this subject in the above-mentioned little history book, “At the Sign of the Cow; The Cork Butter Market: 1770-1924” (ok, I’m laughing but there are a few other history majors out there that might want to read it besides me so we have copies for sale at the Creamery shop). Cork, you’ll learn, is the second best deepwater port in the world, ideal for ships en route to the Americas to dock and stock up on supplies. The enormity of the scale and the successful organization of the market is worth looking at for anyone interested in early examples of quality control oriented business models; inspectors were installed, training certification programs put in place for them, butter was delivered and then loaded onto ships with great efficiency and Irish butter was brought—packed in 60 pound-plus wooden firkins—by boat all over the world.

The Story of the Butter Roads

In order to facilitate the butter export out of Cork, roads were built across the southern part of Ireland to get the product from the farms to the port. The routes came to be known, and still are called, the Butter Roads. Because Ireland had very little in the way of inland waterways for transport, road travel was the way one went about the country. Interestingly, Irish thoroughfares were considered to be of far higher quality; in part they stayed that way because of the low volume of heavy traffic; while English roads became rutted from heavy wagons pulling large loads, carts were uncommon in Ireland until late in the 18th century. Here’s something I never thought of—the early roads were generally very straight with little concern for avoiding excessive inclines as we would today. A man or a horse walking on his own was only moderately bothered by the grade. It was only in the 18th century—when wheeled carts came into more common use—that engineers started cutting curves into roads to avoid hills and steep inclines.

Butter was carried down the Roads into Cork on horseback, two wooden firkins on the back of one’s horse; it took about a week to get there and then get back from the western parts of the county. In a great example of the colonial antagonisms at play English officials took the Irish to task for laziness for taking a “week off” to travel by land, rather than simply shipping their butter round the coastline by boat in a day. But the reality is that most Irish farmers were far too poor to afford to pay the up front costs of ocean freight even if ultimately that was the more time efficient way to travel.

While hardly anyone outside of Ireland other than a relative handful of historians and food lovers will have heard of them, the Butter Roads are still pretty well known amongst the Irish. In fact, the chap who drove our bus ‘round County Cork last fall turned to be from Castleisland, one of the villages near Killarney, in County Kerry, at the outlying end of one of the early ones. When he discovered that I was actually interested in this sort of stuff, he slowly started to share stories. He’s not a young man, and he clearly had had many years to think about the subject. And as someone else who’s interested in the obscurities of history, I know it’s not everyday you find anyone else who’s excited about this stuff. He clearly liked the chance to be center stage on the subject. “My interest in history,” he said smiling, but with great gravity, “is going back a long, long time there.”

The following morning he showed up after breakfast with copies of old photos of the Butter Roads and the butter trade, mostly dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The one of his hometown of Castleisland caught my eye; it had an amazingly large street fair in what I’d figured had to be a small town. Turns out the town has the second widest street in Ireland, second only to O’Connell Street in Dublin, a bit odd when you find out that Castleisland claims only a tad over 2,000 inhabitants.

His excitement got me excited. He had a lot to tell, and he told it all with great pride, putting in a bit of suspense as all good Irish storytellers would do. “Again with the Butter Road we have lots of stories. Nothing was written down and nobody wrote their memoirs.” He was a good storyteller. “In 1747,” he started out, “in Castleisland they built a market house. It was there they brought their produce. Der butter, der botatoes,” he said, his Kerryman’s accent coming out so nicely, always saying “d” instead of “th.”

“People knew, like, there was an outlet for the butter in Cork. They were to march from Castleisland over mountains, over bog, over hard ground.” He’s a good storyteller—you could feel the drama of it all in his voice. “This road was called the ‘Butter Road.’ Up to three or four miles outside of Castleisland you can still travel the Butter Road today.” He then talked me through the various lefts and rights we’d encounter on the road, as we’d head towards the big city, sort of an interactive Google map in the making. “And then,” he went on, “you come down through the narrow passage of Blarney Street and you terminate in Shandon Street in Cork City. And that’s the building. You’re going to see it.” He paused for effect. “The Butter Exchange.”

As with all trade, the Butter Roads had other, unintended implications and outcomes: Butter men brought back time—the farmers synchronized their pocket watches while they were in the big city, then carried the accurate time back with them to the village. And while medieval Irish thieving centered on taking cattle, the shift to modern commerce and cash meant that robbers started to prey on farmer’s on their way back from Cork. The Butter Exchange reached the peak of its power in the middle of the 19th century, and then gradually declined through the second half of the 1800s when margarine made it onto the market and Danish butter producers came into the market at lower prices.

Butter and People

From cattle raiding to colonization to modern day eating, butter has been a constant in Ireland. It’s woven into almost every part of Irish life, in that way that only deep, culturally conforming (and confirming) things can do. Butter is in the culture, in the countryside, in the kitchen, in the culinary schools, in the economy. The butter carries the stories of hard times and good, of pagans and priests, green grass and green backs, cattle raiding and the Common Market, of the past and perhaps the future. And all the while it tastes good. In fact, this piece will pretty probably read better if you get a slice of Irish brown soda bread from the Bakehouse and spread on a whole lot of Irish butter and eat it while you read.

To this day the Irish use a LOT of butter. They cook with it. They put it on toast. They melt it on vegetables. They bake with it. They put in their daily portion of porridge. Of the nearly 170 recipes I counted in Myrtle Allen’s classic Ballymaloe Cookbook, over 110 call for butter. If you want to show your guests hospitality in Ireland, you have tea, and whatever else you put out, you put out plenty of butter. While the Irish haven’t banned margarine the way they did in Wisconsin, I’ve never had a butter substitute served to me in an Irish home. (Peter Foynes, curator of the Butter Museum assures me that Irish people do at times eat butter substitutes, but that I’d not have noticed, “because they would never insult a guest or bring shame upon the house by offering them to a guest.”)

This butter love isn’t just something you’ll hear from folks in the food business. A couple days before Christmas this year I was standing out on the floor at the Deli when I noticed a long time customer carrying a bar of the gold foil wrapped Kerrygold sweet Irish butter up to the counter. I stopped to ask if she’d tried their other offering—the silver foiled cultured butter. While both butters are delicious, I just think the cultured (in silver) is really great, but hardly anyone knows it. Plus, since gold historically trumps silver most people will buy the latter and leave the former thinking it’s somehow second rate. Anyways, I asked, and it turned out, as I suspected, that she wasn’t familiar with the silver. She was, however, happy to hear about it. I figured she’d swap out one for the other, but instead she took one of each. “I love Irish butter,” she said smiling. As she was waiting to pay, she told me the story of a woman who’d come from Ireland to visit her family in Michigan many decades ago. The Irish woman loved the States but, “she could only take what she used to call ‘that Land o’ whatever it’s called butter’ for a week before she had to get back to some honest Irish butter.”

John McKenna, who’s written intelligently and extensively about eating in Ireland, told me once that, “to understand the Irish you have to understand that we’re really a Mediterranean people.” The more time I’ve spent on the island, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to see some value to his comment. Unlike northern Europe, things in Ireland move more slowly. Although they don’t call them “siestas” the Irish do seem to take more time to relax and rest. There’s an enjoyment of life, nature, food and drink that seems comparable to that you find in, say, Spain or Italy. And in this context of Mediterranean living, it occurs to me that in many ways, butter is to Ireland what olive oil is in much of Italy; it’s the most dominant ingredient on the Irish table, a condiment used liberally on bread, fish, vegetables and almost everything else. Cooks of all classes and ilks in Ireland always seem to fall back on butter. When in doubt, Italians add more oil, but the Irish blissfully and blessedly bring on the butter.

To carry this setting slightly further, Peter Foynes reminded me that Ireland never really industrialized, and as a result, the quality of the produce and of life in general have really always been much more of a rural, agricultural setting. “One commentator, “he related, “has said that up to the 1960s, Ireland was just one big farm, with Dublin as the farmhouse. Even up to fifteen years ago, according to my brother who is a statistician with one of the major banks, 35% of the population lived in the greater Dublin area and 45% lived associated with settlements of 1,500 or fewer. The rest were in towns like Cork, Cobh, Tralee etc. Even now it is unusual to find adults more than two generations away from rural life. This means that the tempo of life is more to do with the seasons than it is to do with the assembly line. This is changing but remains a reality in lots of ways.”

Butter Luck, Fairies, Horse Shoes and Hexes

I guess it makes sense that one can tell what a country cares about by looking at where its most abundant shared stories and superstitions are to be found. While here we have a lot of laws and logical requirements about making and selling butter, best I know 21st century Americans probably have next to no legends or superstitions on the subject; Irish culture, by contrast, has a website’s worth of curious stuff to share on the subject.

I don’t underestimate the import of folkways. Charles Joyner, in his excellent book, “Shared Traditions; Southern History and Folk Culture,” wrote that, “ . . . folk culture embodies in its transmissions the visions and values of the folk themselves.” Some things don’t survive, he points out. “But what does survive will be what you have in common with everyone who became a link in the chain of tradition. . . . What remains, after forgetting everything that is not truly memorable, is something primal, something very close to the basic poetic impulse of the human species. People neither remember nor forget without reason.”

It’s not all that surprising I guess—butter making is still a bit mysterious. Even the man who probably has best taken on the subject of modern science and traditional cooking, Harold McGee, wrote in the classic, “On Food and Cooking,” that, “Exactly how churning works is still unknown.” And if that’s what has to say today, so I can only imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago, when poor folks depended on butter to live, and yet had little sense of what made it work one day and not at all the next. The sense of frustration and fear of the unknown and the reality of hunger and poverty . . . the pressure must have been enormous and the take on butter related talisman exceedingly serious.

In Ireland, success in butter making was tied to what was called “butter luck.” If your butter making worked, you had it; if it failed, you faced the loss of one of the main forms of sustenance for your family. People took their butter luck as seriously as any casino gambler would today—there were a plethora of things one was supposed to do or not do in order to keep it intact. A family’s churn was never to be shared out to others, lest one’s butter luck be lost in the lending. In fact, for the same reason, nothing at all was allowed to be loaned—or even just carried out of the room—while the churning work was taking place. Anyone who happened to come by the house while butter was being made was required to lend a hand for the churning to make sure he or she wasn’t aligned with dark forces that would mess up the butter making. While modern Americans think of butterflies for their beauty, in ancient Ireland they were thought to be witches coming to steal milk and butter at night.

That’s just a bit of it. Milk and cream were so important to the Irish that cows were blessed with holy water. Crosses (primarily St. Brigid’s crosses) were hung over the churns, a horseshoe was often placed below, and some salt sprinkled on top, all designed to ward off the fairies who might interfere in the process. People typically hung a twig of rowan wood (aka mountain ash, or quicken tree–hang some today over your computer if you’re doing accounting?) over the door to the dairy or the churn to protect the place from witches. Roan wood was also thought to fend off storms and lightening strikes—strange shifts in barometric pressure could certainly have interfered with the effectiveness of butter making. Dashes (that’s the flat piece at the bottom of pole that goes down into an old barrel churn to “beats” the cream) were made into a simple cross of flat pieces of wood; for reasons I’m not yet fully clear on the two boards were always meant to be of made of different woods due to some unnamed superstition. (If you know why drop me an email – Primroses (though only if picked before sunup) put off evil spirits, hence they were sprinkled on the threshold of the churning room, and also tied to the cows’ tails. I’m not sure where to find them but if you eat said primroses it’s said you can see the fairies coming.

Strangest note I’ve come across was the recommendation in Co. Mayo to use a dead man’s hand to stir the churn. Peter Foynes explained this rather odd belief: “I was at the National Folklore Archive last week and came across a recording of a woman telling a story about a woman, with only one cow, who was able to supply the whole town with butter. It was discovered that she had a dead man’s hand in the house and she would scoop the butter out of the churn using it, thus giving a never-ending supply.” I’m not sure what the implications are for general productivity in the world but perhaps it’s worth a try in raising gross national product.

May Day, by the way, is the day that one’s “butter luck” was said to be determined for the rest of the year. A pure white cow born on May Day was the best of the best when it came to omens. But mostly the Irish were worried about losing their luck—if it was stolen on May Day, your milk and butter were thought to belong to the fairies for the rest of the year. With that in mind, every farm family had it’s guard up on the first of May, the way we do at airports today when the threat goes to whatever color is currently at the top of the scale. Hares caught on May Day were assumed to be witches and were to be stoned immediately.

The story below sums up the seriousness of the situation—I heard it from Peter Foynes, curator of the Irish Butter Museum. I love the quote because it’s just so totally quintessentially Irish. It’s taken from a folklore/rural history collection and reproduced in Patricia Lysaght’s essay, “Women Milk and Magic at the Boundary Festival of May.” It’s a quote from an Irish farmer, talking in the middle of the 20th century (so not all that long ago!) about the need to safeguard one’s butter luck on May Day.

“Some people will not allow any person to walk their land for any purpose on May Day. A man living about four miles from my own village of Knocknagree makes no secret of it that he would shoot any man or woman he’d catch walking through his land on May morning. He says ‘What would bring them here, don’t they know it is May Day, and don’t they know what is said about such things on May Day?’ If they had no bad intention they won’t be found doing it, and if they come with a bad intention don’t they deserve to be shot? And the man that would shoot such a person would be doing a good act for the neighbours.”

Irish Butter Stories

Last fall, thanks to the advance work of Peter Foynes, the man who runs the Cork Butter Museum, I got the chance to meet, and make butter with, a woman named Madge Ahern. The fifth of seven children who grew on a farm not far from Shannon, Madge and her husband’s home is, coincidentally, located on one of the old Butter Roads. As a kid Madge made butter by hand on the farm most every day, but this was her first morning making butter in about fifty years. Madge to me was so much of what I love about the people in Ireland. Maybe 5’2”, with thick, short curly red hair, she was sprightly, alive, blue eyes, deeply lined forehead, a lovely smile, and that vibrancy that goes with someone who—regardless of whether they’re seventy or seventeen—is engaged with the world in a really good way. She came in, I think dressed up a bit for the special occasion, wearing black bell bottomed crinoline pants, and black shiny plastic shoes, and a thin gold necklace with pendant over a blue and white striped sweater. But slightly up market clothing didn’t stop her from her work. She turned the hand crank on the old fashioned, counter top, glass home butter churn for a good twenty minutes without losing steam. Turns out she’s a jogger and still runs regularly. But it’s not just her stamina—while the rest of us who’d come to watch also put our inexperienced hands in to assist for a few minutes to try out (butter) luck, she was the only one who really had the rhythm of the churn down.

Much to my historian’s happiness, Madge seemed to remember most everything about the butter making of her childhood very vividly. “When we made it,” she said, “it was early in the morning. My mother was up earlier than that to milk the cows. You started by six o’clock. And it was cool. That was very important,” she explained patiently. “You’d go to the well and you bring in cold spring water.” Her eyes light up. “Cold, and clear, very cold. That helped you get that nice yellow color. They were very specific about how you made butter. And you had to go get fresh cold well water, four or five times to make the butter.” By the way it was no accident that both Madge and her mother made butter—the butter making in Ireland has always been women’s work. Men who were stuck with dairying were looked down derisively. In fact St. Brigid is said to have saved one poor male soul from humiliation when all the women in his home fell ill and no dairying could since be done (clearly, he couldn’t do it himself.) Her holiness sent her maids in to rescue the poor man from his plight by milking the cows and making the butter for him until his wife and daughter recovered.

“Butter was the main thing you wanted to eat,” Madge explained patiently. “We had lots of butter on bread. Butter on potatoes was even better. And things cooked in butter as well. In the summer,” she said, “we’d have excess milk and we’d make butter and we’d sell it to the neighbors and friends. It was fresh butter. And not salted. It’s lovely when it comes out of the churn.” I don’t think I can effectively convey the delicate lovely lilting voice with which she talked, but imagine that everything’s said slightly more slowly, a bit more poetically than you and I would ever be able to do with a very idyllic Irish accent, yet the words enter the world as if being dropped from softly from beeswings . . . “It’s delicious,” she added. It’s only what we had leftover. We liked to use our own butter. My mother was into health food. She liked us to use our own food.”

She paused for a minute, then remembered a bit more. “The buttermilk,” she said smiling again, “went to the pigs. And,” she added, “to the potatoes. We loved that. You’d have to drink it on the first day.” She smiled very broadly at the thought of it. “It was delicious.” I often forget about the buttermilk which is a natural, and historically very important, by product of butter making. Buttermilk is the liquid in the churn after the butter solids have set up. In the old days the buttermilk was a crucial piece of Irish eating. “There’s buttermilk is in the shops now but it’s not the same thing,” she added. This is true. The buttermilk today has cultures added because it’s made from uncultured butter. Still, Madge baked bread for us using buttermilk and it was very good. Especially spread with the freshly made butter.

Did the churning ever fail to work? I wondered. “No,” Madge responded with surprising (to me at least) confidence. “It always worked. If it didn’t work you were sacked on the spot. The waste of cream was the biggest sin you could commit.”

Buttered Eggs

I almost forgot about the buttered eggs. Which is surprising because I was totally taken aback by the idea of them. I’d never ever heard of such a thing but clearly it happened, and happened pretty regularly. Madge, it appears, made them regularly as a child, and it sounds like it was a pretty standard thing to do in the Irish countryside. “You have to do it when the eggs are hot,” she explained. “You’d save the papers from the butter to do the buttering with. And then it kept the eggs and it tasted better too. She was smiling the whole time she explained it—we were being served a very upscale meal in a very nice Dublin restaurant but all I wanted was a couple of buttered eggs and some good toast. “You had to have your nests perfectly clean,” she continued, ‘because if you didn’t you had to wash the egg and then it wouldn’t be as good.”

“People would buy buttered eggs. You could nearly keep it a month, I’d say. People would buy the dozen and they’d eat ‘em. Where children were concerned it was very successful. When you buttered the eggs hot there’d be a sheen.” She shows us with her hands. “If you buttered it cold you’d know. It would have grease. But if you did it right, you would get the taste of the butter. You have to put a generous amount. Oh lord, my mother would inspect the eggs. There were no excuses.”

Looking it up a few months later I found some stuff to support what Madge had made such a point of. Regina Sexton, in “A Little History of Irish Food,” wrote that, “Just three ingredients are required for their successful preparation; freshly laid hot eggs, fresh unsalted butter and a speedy pair of hands. As soon as the hen lays, the egg must be whipped away and rolled between the palms of the hands that have been smeared with fresh butter.” Sounds like Madge had all three working well.

Butter Today than Yesterday

While the story of the butter from days past is great, I’m pretty confident that the butter itself, for the most part, tastes much better now than it did in centuries past. Looking back a few thousand years the Irish made “bog butter”– butter was put into wooden kegs and then buried in the peat bogs for years, even decades. No one seems quite sure exactly why it was actually done but basically it seems the butter would go rancid and that that became the flavor that people grew accustomed to. I’d file bog butter under, “extremely interesting,” but I’m leaving it off my list of new foods to find out about this year.

Even in more modern times, butter sent down to Cork was pretty heavily salted on the farm to help its keeping qualities, then it was salted up even more heavily by putting a “pickle,” or brine, into each wooden barrel. Good for transport to the tropics, but it wouldn’t be so good for my morning toast. So while Irish butter today has an incredible heritage, mythology, lore and history to build on, what we get today is probably way tastier than what we’ve have been buying in the city a couple hundred years ago. Eating butter in season and on the farm would have been an exception. But for the rest of the world, . . . not so much so.

What’s better butter like? Quite simply, the best butters have distinctive, full flavors. And just as with the best cheeses, a butter’s flavor will vary from maker to maker, region to region, and batch to batch. The Irish butter we get in the Kerrygold packages is really some of the best—and consistently so—around. I confess to having taken it for granted for many years. I’m not sure why really. But I tried it anew last spring, and I was immediately and happily surprised with how good it was. One of the main things that makes the Kerrygold butters so special are made only when the cows are out grazing on grass under the open sky. The grass is good and, as always, what the animals are eating is all-important to the quality of the butter. The cream is taken off the milk and then turned into butter.

You can see the impact of the grazing in the color—the Kerrygold butters are very yellow, a product of the high beta-carotene levels naturally found in the milk because of all the good grass the cows are consuming. As with good cheese, wine and all traditional food, the soil impacts the grasses that grow in the field, which in turn alters the flavor of the milk and the cream. Writing in the “The Ballymaloe Cookbook,” Myrtle Allen, “’The butter your sister is sending is very good,’ I said to my neighbour one day. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that field always made good butter.’ That is long ago and the fragrance is almost forgotten.” Fortunately, the Kerrygold butters still give us a chance to at least come close every day. And for what it’s worth, the foil wrapping (which certainly costs a few cents more) helps protect the fragile butter’ flavor far better than the paper that most other producers use.

The impact of the grazing comes through too in the texture. According to Harold McGee, author of the excellent “On Food and Cooking” the cream from grass fed cows makes for softer, more spreadable butter, while that of cows fed on hay and silage in the barns becomes much harder and more brittle. Molly Stevens, author of the James Beard award winning book, “Braising” added that, “It was amazing to see the difference between how low-end supermarket butter and Irish butter soften when left at room temperature. The supermarket butter transformed quickly from hard, brittle and almost shattering to oily and slumpy as it warmed.” By contrast, she wrote, “The Irish butter held it shape as it softened and remained spreadable and smooth, never greasy.”

Butter Road Leads to Ann Arbor

As I’ve said about six thousand times before, a big piece of what I love about working with traditional food is that it combines culture, history, religion, science, people, music (there are loads of songs about food and drink!), art and aesthetics and puts them all out on the plate where people can actually taste what’s being talked about. My nearly thirty yearlong love affair with Ireland covers all of those aspects of Irish life. Granted it’s a long distance affair; Ireland and I don’t see each other all that often in person. But through the food, the music and the modern day marvels of email I get the chance to interact with Ireland a lot more than one might think given the physical distance between us.

Of course the key of all this here is the butter; it brings something special to the table of anyone who loves butter, Ireland or better still both in a way that’s affordable enough to be an everyday affair, not just a once a year encounter with far fancier food like caviar or foie gras. While I can’t say it’s going to change your life overnight, nor that it’s going to bring about world peace, it is darned good. And if you use it as an entrée into Irish culture and history then . . . maybe you’ll fall in love too. As one American friend who lived in Dublin but has long been back in the States said so well when I asked her about it: “Oooh. The butter . . . “ with a long wistful sigh. “I miss the butter. It’s so good.” Fortunately I can send her some.

I think that I’ll leave the last word on the subject to Nathalie Jordi, an American food writer in the making who’s spending this winter studying and working at Ballymaloe. We were emailing not long after her arrival in Ireland and I asked her what the best she’d eaten with butter since she got there. “The lovely homemade bread that’s baked here at Ballymaloe every day, with butter and local honey. Although,” she added, “I would probably say that about Wonder bread with honey in that plastic bear bottle, if it had Kerrygold butter on it.”

Thanks to Peter Foynes, Madge Ahern, the Allen family at Ballymaloe, Roisin Hennerty, Molly O’Loughlin and Jan Longone for all their help with this essay.

2 responses to “Love, Luck & Irish Butter

  1. Hi Len, the Roadhouse unfortunately does not sell Irish butter, but the Deli does sell the Kerrygold butter. Make sure you get a loaf of bread to go with it!!

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