Country Matters: Digging up the past to reveal prehistoric bog gold

Soft ground could be churned up by passing animals. Cream was made from milk to make butter. But the steel churns once commonly used to store milk on farms for collection and delivery have, through a process of misguided familiarity, come to be commonly referred to as churns by those not of country origin.

The word often cropped up in the media unless spotted by keen-eyed editors. But it can still occasionally be seen in print. This used to annoy fellow agricultural writers greatly when they were used by their bourgeois compatriots. I remember the groan when it came into a story.

As a schoolboy I regularly helped butter, turning an upside-down keg in a country kitchen/dairy that had been sent to a traveling tinsmith to collect buttermilk, a by-product, in a standard 3 liter tin, a shiny one in those days buy or buy at the grocery store.

The actual butter churn was a wooden churn on a stand with various features including a handle on the side to turn it, a removable lid with a peep hole for the churn to watch the wonder of the swing gradually turning the whipped cream into dollops of sweet yellow butter while milk running off below could be collected via a wooden tap.

My job on this cozy farm, filled with the tantalizing smells of fresh milk and cream, was to collect my brimful can of buttermilk, hang it on the handlebars of my bike and carry it carefully about a mile home, to my mother’s kitchen, to pour them into the wheat meal she intended to knead into a firm, rounded cake and set in a hot stove.

The food came from a local mill or bakery and the result, generously brushed with butter, was delicious. I rarely ate so-called storebread until I left home to work as an apprentice reporter in a nearby town.

When I heard about Cork’s Butter Museum and the historical importance of the food in the history of this city, I remembered a butter churn (there was also another solid churn used for making butter, in which the cream was stirred with a long pole). The famous butter exchange was the largest in the world in the 19th century.

Nowadays, various brands of milder, mass-produced butter are preferred, with richer rural ‘country butter’ also available for gourmets, while some enthusiasts prefer to make their own product using high-tech kitchen utensils like glass jugs.

Butter remains a wonderful historical food item, since early Bronze Age people perhaps made it as a deposit and stored it in bogs for safekeeping.

In a study, Dr. Jessica Smith from UCD‘s School of Archeology has said that peat butter deposits may have been votive offerings over four millennia, but at other times possibly the storage and protection of valuable resources. Specimens have been discovered wrapped in bark splinters and in wooden shells, suggesting a precious commodity.

dr Smyth is quoted as saying, “It may not be coincidental that both butter and gold were frequently deposited on bogs.”

Prof Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol has suggested that “the enigmatic butter deposits point to a growing knowledge of the importance of dairy farming in prehistoric Northern Europe”. Butter and buttermilk have long been a precious heritage. Country Matters: Digging up the past to reveal prehistoric bog gold

Fry Electronics Team

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