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One for the Ages

January 7, 2019


Butter, like cheese, is a top way to preserve the nutrients in milk. Placed in animal-skin bags, milk morphs into butter by simply shaking the bag. The operation can be sped up by tying the bag to a stick and shaking it harder, or even by hanging the skin from a tripod and swinging it around and around and around and around. All this kinetic action makes little grains of butterfat form in the milk, and when separated from the liquid, these grains are kneaded together to make - butter. Prehistoric technology like the ‘Scotch hands’ and the plunge-churn upgraded the rudimentary shakey-shakey process and allowed the makers of butter, bless ‘em, to produce this delicious dairy condiment on a family, clan and village scale.


 This brilliant invention was a global one and in hot places like India, Africa or the Mediterranean it took the form of ghee – a clarified liquid made from separating every last solid from the fat. This ghee took some time to go rancid, perfect for those hot lands. In the colder climes of northern Europe, butter could remain unclarified and solid, and was gleefully scoffed in this state. The sun-bronzed southerners were disparaging of this lumpy stuff, calling it “the most delicate of barbarian foods,” and even though it was common in chilly Europe, butter had a bad reputation there too. It was seen as a bogan spread - something that the rough and scruffy peasants ate. It wasn’t really until the 14th and 15th centuries that it made it onto the bread of the upper classes.


There were some places in northern Europe where butter was viewed in a more illuminated way. The Scandinavians pioneered its international trade and they, along with the Finns and Scots, had death rituals and spiritual and culinary practices involving butter. On a beautiful island off the coast of England these sorts of traditions seemed to have evolved first  - and through the ages has resulted in something startling.


Eire, known to the rest of us as Ireland, has had a long and close relationship with cows. Brought from Europe some 6,000 years ago, bovines are constantly referred to in ancient Irish literature and in the spoken sagas; specifically, as providers of milk. There are no beef-eating heroes in the old tales – tough-as-iron warriors ate wild boar, duck, and according to the invading Romans and English - the occasional Roman or Englishman. Under the early Irish Brehon Law (one of the oldest codified legal systems in Europe) the milk cow was the highest unit of currency; they defined a family’s wealth and were an important part of a bride-price. Dairy products were also used for paying taxes and rent and new-born babies were bathed in cow’s milk. Even poets were paid in cattle.


As you might imagine the Irish liked their butter, and to keep it cool over the warmer months they turned to the peat bogs around them. With a lovely aroma and a long, hot burn, peat has been a fuel source in the Emerald Isle for hundreds of years. But it also has the preserving power of a refrigerator or freezer and so the ancient Irish cleverly buried their butter in the bog. The anaerobic nature of the cold and highly acidic peat bog means it’s a near-zero oxygen environment so decomposition is stifled and anything below the surface becomes ‘pickled.’ Sometimes for millennia.


In 2009, a thirty-five-kilo block of butter was unearthed from a peat bog, well-preserved and cheese-like. It was dated to somewhere around the 15th century BC. That’s vintage alright. Four years later a couple of peat-cutters in County Offaly dug up a well-aged 45-kilo stash from 3,000 BC! After 5,000 years in the bog the peat-cutters said it still had a dairy smell. And amazingly enough, bog butter, though now hard and waxy, is, technically, still edible.


Those with a scientific appetite for prehistoric grub - the carpologists and zooarchaeologists – have found bog butter mostly in wooden barrels, churns and firkins. Willow baskets, animal bladders and bark wrappings have also been used. Opinion amongst these experts is split. Some believe the finds of bog-butter are simply forgotten caches placed in the ground or hidden from invaders. Others see the near-fossilised butter as evidence of Bronze and Iron Age votive offerings to long-forgotten gods; maybe even the edible components of sovereignty rites and funerals. But the really nagging question is - what does bog butter taste like?


I’m intrigued as hell but my mouth puckers up just thinking about it. Organoleptic opinion varies. Most mouth-witness accounts are from those eating bog-butter of three to nine months vintage; made by curious history buffs and 21st century cooks. Modern bog butter produces the full spectrum of oral experience from disgust to enjoyment. Apparently, the fat in bog-butter absorbs flavour from its surroundings and descriptions of its taste include such words as - moss, pungent, animal, parmesan, funky, gamey and salami. It doesn’t sound like it would go well with marmalade or strawberry jam.


However, an Irish chef with a lot of guts ate a piece of 4,000-year-old bog butter and reported that the flavour, “is not fermented because it’s gone way beyond that.” He also added, “Then you get this taste that goes right up through your nose.” Wow.


The idea of cooking and eating ancient food is attractive – witness paleo diets – and can be felt as oral time-travel to a simpler, healthier and purer world. Today many recipe books and cooking classes showcase archaic produce and cooking techniques so that you can go the full Neolithic in your fully mod-conned kitchen. Sadly, eating food that itself is incredibly old will remain a fringe interest - mainly due to the dearth of ingredients.


However, some twenty years ago a loaf of well-made bread was found on the shores of Lake Bienne in Switzerland. Made of finely ground flour and leavening, it “showed a nice curvature.” This loaf was indistinguishable in form and content from the bread made there today – the only real difference was that it was 5,500 years old. So, theoretically, one could take a slice of this multi-millennium Swiss bread, top it with some extremely old-school Irish bog-butter - and enjoy a snack for the ages.




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