Sunday, 17 May 2015

Butter in the bog

Here in Ireland, we burn turf – dried peat from the bog – to generate our electricity, rather than coal or oil. Grid electricity arrived here later than most places, but arrived it did, and now travels from turf-burning plants through wires to our homes, to power refrigerators shipped from factories in the Far East. And that is how we keep butter cold, so it lasts for months instead of weeks.

Traditional Irish, however, had a simpler solution, which cut out several middle-men: they kept butter in the bog itself, sometimes for thousands of years.

Turf-diggers occasionally unearth packages of butter – small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets – in Ireland’s waterlogged soil. Butter and other foods would normally spoil through the actions of fungi, which breathe oxygen just as we do – but in the acidic and oxygen-free bog-waters, fungi cannot survive. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago.

All the same, why butter, you ask? Probably because decomposers are slow to take apart fats anyway, and meat or vegetables would be more readily consumed. Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; it’s necessary to fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion. Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that might have been desired; recently unearthed butter has actually been taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren and found to taste like well-aged cheese.

A surprising number of foods have been preserved by burying in one way or another; eggs in China, salmon in Scandanavia and cheese in Italy. Obviously it’s rarely as simple as burying the food; many of these take place in cold countries with permafrost, or the food is made to ferment in some way. More than 430 such finds have been recorded, and that does not count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. Burying butter must have been a rather commonplace activity.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. First we made some butter at home, through the simple application of shaking milk. In the old days this might have been done with a butter churn, but we were only doing small amounts, so we poured milk into a jar until it was half full and shook it – music is good for this part. At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you have a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid.

In olden days many people would pat the butter dry of any milk-liquids, but we clarified it – set it to low heat until the oil separated. Then we poured the butter-fat into a small jar – to the rim, to keep out oxygen – and set it in the fridge.

To bury the butter we found a place in the Bog of Allen, dug a hole half a metre deep. We wrapped the jar in cloth, tied a rope to it, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby bush. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible our experiment was.


Lynda D said...

Now that is interesting, thanks for sharing. I learn stuff everyday.....

Christopher Kinyon said...

Are there concerns about a turf shortage in the coming years?

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks, Lynda!

Christopher, great question -- I've been researching that myself, and have no solid answers as yet. Certainly some long-harvested bog-lands are being converted back to protected wetlands these days, to the consternation of local farmers who want to keep harvesting the turf the traditional way. I hope to get enough information for some kind of Hubbert projection, if such information exists. I'll keeep you posted.