Dunmore residents give us the dish on an old delicacy
by Móna Wise
15 June 2014
(Originally published in the Connacht Tribune on Thursday 19th June 2014)
Dunmore Demesne golf club looked fabulous in all its summer glory as I wheeled my way through the Galway countryside last weekend.
Larry McGuire and Anne Reddington, owners of Galway Goat Farm based just outside Dunmore, had made a recent discovery of Bog Butter and curiosity got the better of me. It was easy tempt me to make the hour long journey out from Galway city to see it, and even taste it.
Butter, it seems, is quite a common thing to find in the bogs of Ireland. Over 274 instances of bog butter has been recorded between 1817 to 1997, and several more since then. A recent find in 2011 of over 45 kg of bog butter found in Tullamore, County Offaly, thought to be 5,000 years old.
A few weeks ago, when taking a walk down in the bog, Anne’s brother, Michael, happened upon this small wheel of butter and phoned his brother-in-law Larry, straight away. Larry, being familiar with all things dairy, due to the fact that he milks his goats daily, raced down the bog after them to check it out.
“They were gone ahead of me so I tore off in the van down the road after them. I had heard of other people finding butter in the bog, but was curious myself to see this. It looks like it had been wrapped in some kind of leaves, maybe cabbage, and there was lots of moss and maybe a bit of straw wrapped around it too.”
The tradition of burying butter in the bog dates back centuries with their even being a poem by London poet, William Moffet, written (in 1755) to describe how much a part of every day life this was:
“But let his faith be good or bad,
He in his house great plenty had,
Of burnt oat-bread, and butter found,
With Garlic mixt, in boggy ground,
So strong, a dog, with help of wind,
By scenting out, with ease might find;
And this they count the bravest meat,
That hungry mortals e’er did eat.”
The reference to garlic comes from the fact that a lot of the butter might have been wrapped in wild garlic, it certainly grows a plenty in this part of the world, but this particular stash had a very mild scent and certainly no trace of garlic essence to be found.
“Gurteen, the area where we are now” said Larry, was predominantly poor land years ago, with not much around here except a massive oak forest. The area was hard hit by the famine, and due to there being so much bog land around here, there would have been very poor grazing land for cattle around here, so it is hard to tell why the butter ended up being stored right out here in the middle of the bog.”
After Larry unearthed the butter, weighing more than a kilo, it was surprising to see how intact the butter still was. The texture crumbled easily enough like a dry waxy cheese, and although quite odourless, it had a mildly rancid flavour, something that can only be described best as ‘really old waxy unsalted cheese’.
While some forms of bog butter found are meat based made from tallow, it seems more plausible that this one is dairy based as the colour still leans more towards yellow.
Larry and Anne have a call in to the curator of the Galway Museum in the hopes that they might come out and have a look at it and help them identify a timeline for their find.
In days gone by butter was considered a luxury item, and it is really no different today as it is one of those items that carries an ever fluctuating price. In the past, because it was always deemed valuable, that reason alone made it worth hiding. As none of the butter found in recent times in Irish bogs have been known to have salt in them, the best conclusion we can come to is that this was buried, wrapped in leaves, moss and grass, in the bog as the only way of preserving it, pre-refrigeration days.
The mystery as to why it was buried so far removed from any form of dwellings even ancient ruins, remains a mystery we hope the curator of the Galway museum can answer.
One thing is certain though, preserving a fabulous food-find right here in Galway is vital to us finding and revealing a lot more of the gastronomic details of our ancestors daily diet.
Who needs a fridge for butter with the bog nearby?
Our cultural landscape
There are many theories behind the burying of butter. A common tactic in war was destroying the enemies foodstuffs, ensuring a famine, so butter might have been buried for reasons of security and defence, so this find might indicate a sudden attack or flight of the people who stored it.
Another theory is just a practical farming one, in that the cattle were released to graze in greener pastures during the warmer months and the butter was made and stored nearby.
Why the bog?
Peat bogs provide a cold and wet environment with virtually no oxygen circulating in its muddy depths.
The build up of plant materials over thousands of years creates highly acidic conditions making it perfect to preserve many items including food and even bodies. Whilst we have butter in our bogs, many other countries have buried and re-discovered other food products such as eggs in China, ghee (clarified butter) in India, cheese in Italy and even milk in Norway.
A piece of bog butter found in Rosmoylan, County Roscommon, was discovered in wooden barrel with a selection of plants like ‘sedge’, ‘wheat grass’ and ‘hypnum’ a type of moss. All three of these types of plan materials were commonly used by people to stuff their mattresses for bedding, with the Latin word ‘hypnos’ even translating to the mean ‘sleep’. It is lovely to think of the Irish milking maids of days gone by wrapping up their wheels of butter and laying them down in the bogs for a nice long sleep in the bog.
Thanks for reading – if you are in or around Galway this week, then keep an eye out for this weeks Connacht Tribune on Thursday 26th, 2014. I have a two-page spread on fun activities ALL FOR FREE ….. a cut out and stick on the fridge piece to help keep the kids occupied (and not break the bank) this summer!
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