Prompt 5: Food in Cork

Hi everyone, after enjoying 8 weeks at the University College Cork’s Greek and Latin Summer School, I’m posting my all my blogs which were delayed by my broken computer!

After our third exam, a group of my classmates and I walked from the UCC’s campus to the Cork Butter Museum. We watched a live demonstration of butter churning and learned about how butter was made and its significance throughout history in Ireland and particularly in Cork.

From outside the Butter Museum


How butter is made:

Butter began as simple full milk, and the finished product was cream (the fatty solid) and buttermilk (the liquid). The fat separated from the liquid by force or pressure, i.e. shaking in some manner. As our demonstrator explained it, the fat was existing happily in a calm liquid, but once it was shaken up, it connected itself to the other fats and they formed clumps which became the butter. He used a hand crank mechanism, not the plunger method that I’ve always associated with butter churning. But the milk was in a glass jar, and a rotating paddle spun like a revolving door to agitate the liquid. The milk was cool, he explained that it was chilled to 14 C, or 57 F, but more importantly, the jar was colder, at 8C or 46F. Some kids from the audience acted as man power turning the crank while he explained the process and some history of butter. After a short time (maybe 10 minutes) it grew difficult to turn the crank which signified that the solid was forming, and it was time for the liquid to drain. Another volunteer held a sieve that caught the butter as the buttermilk poured into another jar. Then the solid was put into the jar again with cold water and drained in the same manner. It was important to keep the buttermilk separate from the diluted butter water (as the buttermilk was extremely high in calories and nutrients which is why it went to the most important member of the household, the pig) and the process was repeated until the uncontaminated solid remained and the water came away clean. After that, the butter was ready for our consumption, where normally it would be processed further, salted, and packaged for sale, our demonstrator grabbed a loaf of bread and started spreading the butter. 

Our demonstrator churning and draining the butter

As for the significance of butter in Ireland, today it is one of its largest exports and has been for centuries. Cork in particular, with its proximity to the ports in Cobh and Kinsale, plays a large role in the exporting business. Right around the corner from the museum was the site of the Cork Butter Exchange Market that started in 1730 and closed in 1924. Our demonstrator explained how dairy farming evolved from subsistence to Ireland’s greatest export in the 18th and 19th centuries. As roads and transportation methods improved, butter became profitable, not just within a parish, but across county lines, and eventually transcontinentally. He talked about the quality of Irish butter and the inspector’s grading system (IV was the highest quality) and how it all began with the green grass. The richness in butter comes from the fat content of the milk, and the best grass makes the fattest cows, and he specifically mentioned that cows in Ireland live outside year round to enjoy their fresh grass. And I happened to know that Land O’ Lakes butter is the highest producer of butter in American with Kerrygold, the Irish brand, as the second biggest producer in America. In order to defend my semi-rural hometown in Minnesota, I had to let him know that if he lived in Minnesota, he wouldn’t want to live outdoors year round either, which got a laugh. 

The remains of the Cork Butter Exchange

After the demonstration, we explored the rest of the museum which housed artifacts for different methods of producing butter, like a plunge churn and a barrel churn. There was a display of children’s writings on folklore that involved butter and old women and another on superstitions involving butter. Our demonstrator had noted that women and the supernatural were intrinsically linked to butter throughout history in Ireland and it was fascinating to read stories passed down through generations exemplifying this. There was a station where you could stamp a piece of paper with different butter logos and examine the differences in advertising. Then there was a section on butter in prehistory which included bog butter, barrels that had been preserved for centuries. I had seen some bog men, human bodies preserved in bogs, at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin and found the ancient barrels of butter much more palatable.

Bog butter

After our excursion at the Butter Museum we enjoyed a meal near the English Market and I had an Irish beef steak with garlic butter garnish, also locally produced, which combined some Irish staples of beef, potatoes, and butter.