Farm Ireland

Thursday 19 April 2018

A milky wave of products on our shelves

We used to have milk delivered in reusable glass bottles - now we drive to a local shop to collect it and then throw away the containers. That’s called progress
We used to have milk delivered in reusable glass bottles - now we drive to a local shop to collect it and then throw away the containers. That’s called progress
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

When I was a child, regardless of the main farm enterprise, virtually every farmer kept a cow.

We always had a shorthorn which produced a good beef calf annually as well as supplying the house with fresh milk for much of the year.

In those days houses, with the exception of the kitchen, were almost always cold and I recall one small north facing room with a stone flagged floor that, even in the height of summer, remained chilly. This was where the milk was kept.

A large circular enamel pan was used to store the fresh milk and when it had settled it was skimmed by hand using a saucer shaped perforated disc, to remove the thickest of the cream.

This was then made in to butter, a mysterious and almost magical process where turning the handle of the churn was akin to some arcane religious practice.

Churning was carried out with a certain reverence and whoever happened to enter the kitchen usually took a turn at the handle.

The moment when the cream began to become lumpy and the butter appeared was as good as turning water in to wine. The butter at this point was strained through muslin and then made in to blocks using wooden pats or paddles.

Skilled cooks could make wonderful shapes with these and often a stamp was used, frequently floral shaped to leave an attractive design on the dish or block of butter.

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The remaining buttermilk was used for baking and it would also be drunk with meals, or brought to work in the fields where it made a really refreshing drink.

Originally the science of butter making was not fully understood, but people were well aware that it could sometimes inexplicably go wrong.


Naturally many superstitions prevailed requiring all sorts of rituals, like placing a horseshoe below the churn or sprinkling primroses on the threshold of the churning room.

In some rural areas a hot iron was traditionally poked in to the cream to expel a witch from the churn. The following quote from The Tailor and Ansty, the story of west Cork tailor and storyteller Timothy Buckley and his wife Anastasia, sums up the importance of a cow.

"If you had not the cow you would not be able to live at all….She provided us with milk. Milk to drink and 'colouring' for the tea. Then she provides us with the thick milk and with the buttermilk. How could you eat the potatoes without the thick milk; and how could you bake the cake without the buttermilk; and how could you get through the heat of the Summer without the buttermilk - the best drink a man ever had - almost…Next comes the butter…the cow is a miracle entirely, so that a man could scarcely live without her. It would be like trying to hang your hat upon a rainbow, as to be trying to live without a cow'.

Milk was formerly delivered around towns by cart in large containers and ladled in to cans held by waiting housewives.

Eventually we progressed to glass bottles and these were in turn delivered to the doorstep with the previous days empties removed for recycling. In later years milk was delivered in the Tetrapaks you see on supermarket shelves today but home deliveries have become a rarity.

We have moved on from reusing glass bottles and having milk delivered to our doors, to having to drive and collect it from a local shop and then throwing away the containers. That's called progress.

Many urban children do not even know where milk comes from these days and the bewildering array of dairy products on sale is utterly confusing.

Milk is no longer just a single product. In one supermarket I noted the following: whole milk, skimmed milk, fortified low fat milk and fortified skimmed milk (whatever fortified means!), lactose free milk, organic whole and skimmed milk, whole and low fat "super" milk with folic acid and vitamins added and also a slimline "fat free" version.

Then there was goats milk, 'Heart Active milk with plant sterols' (what on earth are they?) Low fat protein milk and of course buttermilk, cream, crème fraiche, sour cream, whipped cream, cooking cream and double cream.

Choosy children can have chocolate and strawberry milk and for those on non-dairy diets there was almond, hazelnut, coconut and three kinds of soya milk.

What on earth would Timothy Buckley the Tailor and his wife Anastasia have made of it all? Incidentally, The Tailor and Ansty by Eric Cross was banned by the Censorship Board in 1942 for its allegedly indecent content and remained prohibited until the 1960s. That's a tale for another day.


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