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Irish Food: It’s All About the Butter

Peter Foynes is mad about Irish butter. He savors its historical contributions to the cuisine and culture of Ireland. And he heralds it as the signature food item of the nation.

Foynes is director of the Cork Butter Museum, in Cork City, Ireland, probably the only museum of its kind in the world dedicated to this singular product. The museum traces the history of Irish butter through remarkable artifacts, from the 56-pound keg of 1,000 year-old butter, to butter-making tools, from ancient to modern.

The museum is located next to the old Cork Butter Exchange, founded in 1769, which was once the largest butter market in the world. In the heyday of its 150-year history, Irish butter was exported far and wide — to Europe and America, and as far away as India.

“To be the biggest anything in the world — this was especially important for a small country, a poor country,” Foynes explained. “The reason the Butter Exchange was so successful was because they introduced food grading. Cork may have been the first to do that in 1769. It was quite extraordinary. Grading food and taking responsibility for quality management gave Cork butter an international reputation for reliability.”

The modern era of the butter industry began in 1961 with the creation by the Irish government of the Irish Dairy Board, Foynes explained. The Board reintroduced quality control and efficient production through economies of scale. It enabled the dairy industry to market, package and brand more effectively by introducing the Kerrygold label.

“Irish butter is special,” Foynes said. “First, the flavor is a consequence of the cows being grass-fed and the type of grass in Ireland. The trace elements in the soil that get into the grass are unique. The benign climate ensures that cows are pasture-fed, to take advantage of the quality of the grass.”

Then there is the quality of herd management and the care cows are given, he added. “Irish farms have very small herds. The average size is 60 cows and the cows have a decent life. They are well cared for by farmers — the cows even have names. This impacts the quality of the product.”

Think of happy cows in green Irish pastures when you make this recipe from Foynes for St. Patrick’s Day.


Buttery Irish Potato and Apple Bake


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