In Danish, tandsmør literally means “tooth butter” – a term that rather unambiguously refers to butter spread so thickly that it reveals tooth marks. The fact this word even exists shines light on the reverence placed on butter in Denmark. It is no wonder that when the Vikings plundered and pillaged the pasture laden lands of Ireland, we deceptively hid our supplies of butter in the boglands. Over the centuries, our kindred have developed a reputation for dairy production with the likes of Kerrygold now a multinational, exporting to over 80 markets worldwide and becoming the second best selling butter in the U.S. (23 thousand tonnes) worth $1 billion dollars a year. While Kerrygold boasts an ever increasing brand loyalty (to a great degree in Ireland too) and artisanal butters are becoming readily available in stores, I can’t help but wonder if commercial Irish butter is as good as it gets?
Irish bog butter
Historically speaking, during the summer months butter was made, transferred into wooden vessels and stored in the cool bogs. Cattle produce the best and most plentiful milk in the summer and autumn when grasses are at their peak. While the hot summer sun attempted to spoil Ireland’s gold, it was the anaerobic nature of the bog that became an ingenious refrigeration system. Without oxygen, neither the butter nor its wooden container could decompose. Curiously some of the vessels predate the butter that is in them, suggesting that these wooden vessels, sometimes artfully crafted and engraved with complex markings, were consistently used for storing butter and passed down through generations. Butter is still being unearthed from within our bogs and it’s even found to be edible.
Yellow vs white butter
Butter gets its startling yellow colour from the high percentage of beta-carotene (the same pigment as in carrots). Carotene is found in the pasture that cows eat and is converted into beta-carotene in the cow’s stomach. Cows fed on grain don’t get a high source of carotene. When the human body consumes beta carotene it converts it into vitamin A in the body, which strengthens the immune system and is important for bones, teeth, skin and growth. While some cattle digest carotene, the Guernsey breed which is indigenous to the island of Guernsey in South England, converts all of the carotene ingested into beta-carotene. The beta carotene can also be seen on the skin and is particularly evident in a beautifully aged piece of beef with yellow tainted fat.
Ever wondered why butter in the U.S or countries like Mexico is white? In an excellent article detailing the importance of regenerative farming and the impending difficulties that low input farms face, Sebastian Delamothe remarks, “I cooked, experimented and ate a gluttonous range of high-quality ingredients, but I never really understood why prefixes like ‘grass-fed’ on grass-fed beef or ‘raw milk’ on raw milk cheese denoted quality, other than that they tended to taste better and it was something to do with how they were produced.” When Dan Barber, from farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, began producing butter from individual cows, he very quickly began to identify distinctive differences within the milk. ‘Annabelle’, his Dutch Belted cow and a catholic grazer, produced butter that was bright yellow. Whereas, ‘Sunshine’, a combination of Kerry and Shorthorn cow, made butter that was ivory white in the winter, except in the summer when it turned golden and tasted like pound cake.
In this alone, it is clear what impact the breed and season has on the cattle’s milk. Connecting butter to the condition of the grass is another thing. On a day when the butter came from the cows grazing on pasture located closest to the field, he found it tasted rich, complex and deeply golden in colour. When the cattle were moved further away from the dairy parlour, the batch paled in comparison. Bemused, Dan relayed this to the farmer, who told him, “The most distant pasture is usually the least grazed,” and as a result, the soil in these fields is sparsely fertilised and the grass is almost always less lush and nutritious. The difference was evident in the taste.
Spreading the word
Taking all of these measures into account, what are determining factors or links that define farmland butter, perhaps compromised in commercial butter? At school, we learn that milk comes from cows and butter from milk. We are told cows eat grass and that Ireland is good for cows because there’s lots of grass. We’re told to drink up said milk because it’s good for our bones, but we are not told much else. We are not told that not all butter produced in Ireland is 100% grass fed and what that implies. We are not told all cows produce the same quality, quantity of milk and thus different breeds have different purposes. We’re not told what factors make butter white, yellow or deeply golden. Ultimately, in order to achieve great butter we need to better appreciate milk. Obtaining an enhanced understanding of milk requires knowledge about the cow. Happy cows are a result of good grass. Good grass? Good soil. Good soil? Regenerative farming…
In a world where butter is regarded as an everyday consumable from a tender age, it takes pioneers to educate us on what exactly it takes to produce a great product, both on and off the field. By educating oneself, stepping into that field, and asking why, one can serve a single slice of bread and butter with the aplomb it deserves.
For your fill of beautiful butter, historical facts and memorabilia, check out the Irish Butter Museum in Cork city. Yes, that’s how seriously we take butter.
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com