There are many reasons why Irish butter is the best in the world, not the least of which is that we’ve been making it for more than 3,000 years.
For much of our food history, butter was made in small batches, churned at home and eaten as an integral part of our sustenance. Stirred into porridge or spread on fresh bread, it could provide important calories, fats, vitamins and calcium in diets that were otherwise meagre. Butter was also a key economic commodity — from the 17th century on, Cork’s Butter Exchange became the world’s largest butter market, exporting as far away as Asia and South America. Preservation on these long voyages was accomplished by adding salt, still a distinct feature in Irish butter today; its deep yellow colour comes from the grass our cattle live on, rich in beta-carotene.
Before vans and lorries were the order of the day, this economic prowess meant that farmers regularly undertook gruelling trips across the country, walking the ‘butter roads’ beside pack horses loaded with butter-filled barrels known as firkins. The industrial age brought the ability to mass-produce and transport dairy, changing the face of the Irish butter trade.
However, in recent years, local farmhouse butter has been making a comeback. In an age of high yields and cost-cutting, it’s always reassuring to hear of small-scale farms focused on quality, sustainability and animal welfare. There is a noticeable — if diminutive — wave of people returning to farming with the express aim of making a positive contribution to the environment as well as the food system.
Mimi and Owen Crawford are two such people, working from an inherent belief that small farms play a vital role in carrying on food tradition in Ireland. Their 28-acre farm in Co. Tipperary originally belonged to Owen’s grandfather, although Owen spent his early career working as a furniture designer. Meanwhile, physicist Mimi had finished a winding path through geophysics and environmental geoscience, finally embarking on a WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) adventure around the world — an adventure that would eventually lead her to Cloughjordan, and Owen.
Together, they took over the farm out of a desire to live and eat well, connect with nature, put their personal principles into practice, and contribute positively to the Irish food and farming systems. For Mimi and Owen, this means thinking beyond sustainability. “More than just being sustainable, we are working toward becoming a truly regenerative farm — one that emulates nature, builds soil and stores carbon, all while producing foods that we feel good about feeding to ourselves and our community,” Mimi tells me. “To do this, we are constantly working towards diversification rather than specialisation. Nature is complex and interconnected and natural functions are always stacked — we believe farms should be the same.”
The pair concentrates first and foremost on the soil. “We are always learning about how to better protect and enhance our soils and increase our diversity. We’re currently learning to institute holistic grazing with our cows, mixed with Serengeti-style multi-species grazing.” Their chickens follow the herd of cows in the grazing rotation, fertilising the fields and providing the hens with a varied diet of greens, seeds and insects. Similarly, their pigs follow the rotation of the crops; they also help to consume all the excess skim milk, apples, vegetable and nuts from the farm throughout the year, a practice which later creates delicious pork and bacon. The Crawfords plant plenty of trees, and feed their soil with homemade compost and natural teas, such as nettle and seaweed.
This approach to agriculture means that the farm is naturally organic, but the Crawfords made sure to obtain certification in 2016. “We’re big proponents of the ‘know your farmer, know your food’ sentiment and encourage a direct connection between farmers and consumers. Where this may not be logistically possible, being certified organic at least gives customers a small glimpse of us and some of our values.”
Enjoying this rural utopia are happy pigs, chickens and a herd of 11 Shorthorn cows with individual names like Ruby, Pepper, Belle and Roxy. Shorthorns are an indigenous breed and well-suited to the Irish climate and land. “They thrive in an organic system with good grass. We chose them because they were suited to the style of diversified, organic farming for which we were aiming. We’ve stuck with them for exactly those reasons.”
Each cow is called in by name to the same milking parlour where the family cow was hand milked two generations ago. Mimi and Owen sell this creamy milk as is, as well as producing organic raw cream, buttermilk and traditional, handmade butter.
The Crawfords strive to mimic wild, natural rhythms as much as is possible with domesticated animals, and have adopted a seasonal system with this in mind. This set-up gives the cows a break over the winter, synchronising their spring calving with the regrowth of nutritious grass. “There are prime times to eat farmed protein products, and eating within these seasons increases the health of the animals, the farmers and the planet.”
As Mimi points out, cheese and butter were originally ways to preserve spring and summer milk into the colder months when cattle weren’t producing milk. Almost 4,000 years ago, Irish natives were storing butter in bogs to preserve it even longer; hoards of these ancient foodstuffs are still being unearthed today.
These days, fresh milk is expected all year round, as technical advances make it possible to control breeding cycles, meaning cows produce over winter, “when they should be reserving their energy and building up again for spring,” says Mimi. “We chose to return to a more holistic, cyclic model of farming. It instils more respect for the animals, brings a deeper connection to the natural world, and adds flavour and nutrition to our food.”
The upshot of all of this is not just a farming system you can feel proud to support, but absolutely top-quality dairy, too — something very close to my hungry heart. The milk, cream and butter are raw, or unpasteurised, another way in which the products hearken back to the traditional butters of ancient Ireland. The Crawfords feel strongly about this. “Do we want it to be a beneficial, living, whole, nutritious food, or do we want it sterilised, dead, incomplete and altered, in the case of pasteurised and homogenised dairy?”
Raw milk has been a source of debate for many years, with opponents claiming that it poses health risks. In my experience, I have found that producers of raw milk are often, by necessity, more vigilant in terms of health and safety than those who know their milk is destined to be pasteurised. While people with compromised immune systems or those who are pregnant may be advised to avoid raw dairy for caution’s sake, I’m a strong believer that it can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet, providing beneficial bacteria and certainly bringing a level of flavour impossible to find in pasteurised milk.
I have not (yet!) tried the Crawfords’ chicken or pork, but their dairy has been making me very, very happy this month. Their cream is sweet and absolutely gorgeous over porridge or in a coffee, while their butter is salty with a tangy taste that has sent my addiction rocketing to a whole new level, deeply savoury and somehow more buttery than the butters I’m used to. It’s easy to see why this is their best-seller. “Even if we could milk cows that produced pure cream, we still might not be able to produce enough butter to satiate the Irish appetite!” jokes Mimi.
While there is infinite pleasure to be had in enjoying this luxurious butter simply as is, we’ve been experimenting in the Test Kitchen with making our most delicious compound butter yet. This beautiful butter recipe is far from a new invention; in fact, as early as the 12th century, there are records of Irish butter being flavoured with foods like onions and garlic. Indulge in this absolute treat spread over fresh bread, stirred into mash or oozing over roast potatoes. Alternatively, melt it and use it as a moreish party dip for steak strips, bread cubes or crudités.
Crawford’s dairy products are currently available through local deliveries in parts of Tipperary and Offaly, independent health food shops, Sheridans Cheesemongers and Fallon and Byrne. They also have a stall at the Limerick Milk Market every Saturday from March to November.