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Edible histories: butter

Categories: History of food

From Roman sniffiness to Martin Luther’s terrible temper: Mark Riddaway on the rich history of butter

In 2009, a 30kg oak barrel almost a metre tall, perfectly preserved and topped with a tightly fitted lid, was hauled out of a bog in County Kildare, Ireland. Inside, filling it to the brim, was a massive quantity of butter—more than 2,000 years old, probably a little past its best, but still recognisable as that country’s spread, condiment and cooking fat of choice.

This particular treasure was one of the more impressive of Ireland’s many discoveries of ‘bog butter’, which date all the way back to the Iron Age, when the island’s inhabitants first discovered that the low temperature, low oxygen levels and high acidity found in peat bogs offered excellent preservative properties.

They buried their butter in earthenware pots, wooden containers, animal skins or tree bark and left it to mature for reasons of both practicality and taste. As recently as the 17th century, The Irish Hudibras poem asserted that for the island’s inhabitants, “butter to eat with their hog, was seven years buried in a bog”.

The Irish love butter—their butter market, based in Cork, was once the biggest in the world—and the island’s protohistoric inhabitants were clearly some of the ancient world’s more enthusiastic butter consumers. But they were by no means its first.

A veritable milk machine
Butter is a wonderfully simple product: a fatty emulsion created when creamy milk is shaken or churned. All it requires is a single commonplace ingredient and a little elbow grease. The result is highly calorific, nutritious, versatile and—most importantly—delicious. It has been made using the milk of goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks and even camels since deep in our Neolithic past, although it was the domestication of the cow—a veritable milk machine—that did most to broaden its appeal.

A Sumerian frieze from the temple in al-Ubaid, dating from around 2,500BC, appears to depict temple priests shaking cows’ milk in a large jar and then straining it to leave the butter. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving works of literature, the eponymous Mesopotamian king mentions butter in a lament to a dead friend—“may the shepherd who made milk and butter for thy mouth mourn thee”—and leaves as an offering to the god Shamash “a dish of lapis lazuli with butter”.

The great ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first classical writers to describe the act of buttermaking. “The Scythians,” he wrote, referring to a tribe of Iranian nomads, “pour the milk of their mares into wooden vessels, and shake it violently; this causes it to foam, and the fat part, which is light, rising to the surface, becomes what is called butter.”

The Greeks gave us the root word ‘boutyron’, but they had little use for butter except as a kind of medicinal salve, applied externally. Across north Africa, the Middle East and much of Asia, however, it was a dietary staple. The Periplus Maris Erythraei, an anonymous work from around the middle of the first century BC written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian merchant, tells of a thriving butter trade around the Red Sea, while the geographer Strabo, writing a few decades later, described the consumption of butter in Arabia and Ethiopia.

Since time immemorial
We can assume, given the climate, that the butter in question was preserved by being clarified—like the Indian ghee that has been central to that country’s culinary tradition since time immemorial.

In ancient Rome, butter had its place—but that place was either the medicine cabinet or the washroom, not the pantry. About the best thing that Pliny the Elder could say about it was that “used with honey, butter heals injuries inflicted by millipedes”.

He seemed particularly affronted in his Natural History that “the barbarous nations” that make and consume butter “have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it”. The most common use of butter among the sophisticated, cheese-loving Romans was as a classical precursor to baby oil, used for greasing up their infants.

This Italian indifference towards butter, which persisted for many centuries and still does in some parts of that oil-loving country, caused a few tensions in medieval Europe, when the question of whether or not butter should be avoided on the many Roman Catholic fasting days was a matter for considerable debate—particularly among the French who are, as we know, more than a little partial to a bit of the old beurre.

A specific permission
After various vacillations, Rome’s official stance was confirmed by a clerical council at Angers in 1365: “We know that in several regions not only the regular canons but even the clerics use milk and butter at Lent and on fast days, even though they have fish, oil, and everything which is necessary for this period. As a result, we forbid any person whatsoever milk and butter during Lent, even in bread and vegetables, unless they have obtained a specific permission.”

Such ‘permissions’ were happily granted by the church in exchange for one of the few substances valued by the papacy even more highly than olive oil: cold, hard cash. ‘Troncs pour le beurre’—alms boxes for butter—were placed in French churches for the purchase of dispensations, and the income generated was such that the ornate 260-foot tower added to Rouen cathedral between 1485 and 1507 was nicknamed ‘la tour de beurre’, with the funding for its construction supposedly having come from exorbitant butter permits.

One of the many things that got Martin Luther angry was the church’s attitude towards this northern European staple: “At Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter...” Nobody would suggest that a shared love of butter was the primary motivation for Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and England embracing the Reformation movement, but it certainly didn’t do any harm to the protestant cause.

Before the industrial revolution changed everything, British butter was made by small producers, mainly women (“man to the plough, wife to the cow”, as the English rhyme went), with strong regional variations based on breed, feed and the type and quantity of salt—if any—used as a preservative. 

A beautifully backhanded compliment
Daniel Defoe, writing in the 1720s, stated that the area known as High Suffolk was—in a beautifully backhanded compliment—“famous for the best butter, and perhaps the worst cheese, in England”. A century later, in his Essays on the Management of the Dairy, Josiah Twamley asserted that butter from Essex was the most widely admired: “Epping butter is most highly esteemed in London and its neighbourhood; great part of it is made from cows, which feed during the summer months in Epping Forest, where the leaves and shrubby plants are understood greatly to contribute to its superior flavour.” He also praised the quality of Somerset butter and Cambridgeshire salt butter.

Twamley remarked upon the neatness with which Gloucestershire dairy farmers packed their product. In the summer, he wrote, they would wrap the butter in the green leaves of garden orache, known locally as ‘butter leaves’.

Traditions of how butter should be presented could vary even at a local level. Laura Rose, a Canadian dairy expert visiting England in the 19th century, wrote about a visit to an Oxford dairy: “When she had the butter all vigorously kneaded, she measured it into pounds and rolled it into balls and then pressed it into Oxford prints; you could not dispose of a pound of butter in any other shape there. While at Banbury, a few miles distant, they would not buy an Oxford print, the market there demanding plain rolls. That shows you the conservativeness of the English.” Like Canada is defined by its sense of wild abandon.

Winter butter was less tasty than summer butter, with the cows’ more limited diet impacting on the milk quality. It was also paler in colour, meaning that a deep yellow tone became widely associated with excellence. This led to unscrupulous buttermakers adding dyes. “Those most generally used, and certainly the most wholesome,” wrote Twamley, “are the juice of the carrot, and of the flowers of the marigold.”

Famed for their cheeses
In some parts of the country, a cheaper product could be purchased in the form of ‘whey butter’, made from the whey cast aside during the production of cheese—widely considered to be inferior in flavour to butter made from milk and cream, but an economical use of what was otherwise a waste product. Whey butter was particularly associated with Somerset, Devon, Lancashire and Cheshire: counties famed for their cheeses.

This regional distinctiveness struggled to survive the rapid mechanisation of the dairy industry from the mid-19th century onwards and the simultaneous loss of diversity among cattle breeds. The invention of margarine in 1869 also took its toll. Butter, like the bread on which it was spread, became an industrial product: cheap, functional and largely homogenous.

In recent years, though, there has been a revival of small-scale butter production with a strong sense of terroir. After years of eating mass produced butter, trying the raw milk butter from Hook and Son’s Sussex dairy is like discovering an entirely new product. Whatever you choose to do with it—pile it onto hot toast, bake it into succulent cakes, or bury it in a peat bog for 2,000 years—you’ll be experiencing a little bit of history.