Life Home & Garden

Thursday 17 October 2019

Objects of desire: Butter dishes back in vogue

Butter is back on the table and with it the need for a decent dish. Architect Roisin Murphy has it down pat

Butter dish, €70;
Butter dish, €70;

Roisin Murphy

I am the daughter of a farmer's daughter who was exiled from a dairy farm in the west to a bungalow in Co Kildare. Certain things happened when I was growing up that I realise now were different. Making butter in our living room was one of them. Regularly enough, we would skim the cream off the tops of bottles of milk, before milk was homogenised and back when it was still delivered in bottles. We would decant the collected cream into a jar or lunch box and shake it back and forth until thick curd-like blobs appeared. We'd add salt and, hey presto - butter.

The pay-off was uninterrupted telly watching, which was regarded as poison for the mind. Sometimes it was even worth it. The taste was extraordinary.

Butter dish, €70;
Butter dish, €70;

It was no small relief when the mother took to margarine. Lots of margarine, the staple of anyone on a permanent diet in Ireland (everyone). Ads vaunted the virtues of polyunsaturated fats and vegetable oils as the 'healthy' alternative to those dreaded animal fats blamed for high cholesterol.

But over the last decade the sheen has gone off margarine. And butter has regained its position on Irish kitchen tables as a symbol of all that is heroically good about the country.

We are one of the biggest producers of butter in the world, second only to New Zealand. Historically we have always had a reputation for producing vast quantities of the golden stuff. In fact, in the 1920s the Cork farmers' market was the biggest producer across the globe.

The ancient Irish valued it so much they were buried with barrels of it. Germans are in awe of it, and regard Kerrygold as the king of butters, particularly for baking. And so do we: butter is back with a bang. Or a small thud.

It is a semi-solid, easily melted yellow block wrapped in foil paper. And if you're in enough of a hurry, it might never be decanted from its wrapper, just lopped off in pats - especially in my house, where it is the first thing reached for out of the shopping bag, and where biscuits are considered as just butter delivery systems.

But, generally, it demands a dish.

Once the butter dish was a staple of the fashionable Irish home. However, just as butter was shoved off the kitchen table for two decades, so was its display case.

It has been a quiet obsession of mine to burrow out the ideal dish, and I've tried dozens of types: the classic Bavarian one, a French ceramic Brie container, off-the-shelf varieties. And while I've liked them all, I've never loved them.

Now the humble dish has come to the attention of Laura Magahy, creative director at Arran Street East, the cutting-edge pottery school and shop set in Dublin's fruit and veg market district. Their sleek cups and mugs are wonderful, so I've been thrilled to think we're finally going to get a showcase for our brilliant butter. Designs have been in the pipeline for months, apparently. Laura comes up with a concept, which gets honed in a collaborative process and the team works back and forth until a piece is perfected.

The final dish has a bell-shaped lid, echoing the style of Arran Street East's mugs and with a similar sort of knob. The saucer has a raised edge that makes a seal and allows the creamy butter to be properly contained and stops too much spread. It's designed for a quarter-pound of butter cut from a half-pound slab. Finally, a proper butter dish.

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