Butter around the world – why does my Irish butter taste better?

The sweet creamy luxury of pure butter dripping from my toast, adding a hint of pleasure to a plain cheese sandwich or used to cook the finest meats, seafood and vegetables. Butter around the world is one of those simple luxuries that we often take for granted will be the same taste everywhere.

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But hold up a minute why does my Mexican butter taste rancid to my North American palate? Why does French butter have a funny tang when I use it on plain bread? Why is Irish butter so creamy and yellow (not to mention absolutely delicious)?

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Origins of butter

Where does butter come from?

According to the author of Butter A Rich History, Elaine Khosrova butter was quite likely invented by accident around 10,000 years ago. Khosrova believes that in the African hills a traveller accidentally made butter. Leading a nomadic life the tribal communities would put milk into bags made from sheep or goatskin. On a long hot journey with lots of jostling around the milk would curdle and transform into an early type of butter.

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Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

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How butter is made

Butter was not initially from cows but from animals such as yaks, goats, and sheep long before cows were domesticated.   And from the way nomadic peoples make butter these days – by hanging pouches of milk from trees and bushes and then agitating them to an early version of butter historians and food archaeologists extrapolated that butter has been around for millennia we just don’t know exactly when.

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Wild white yak in Himalayas.

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old limestone tablet depicting early butter-making. Bog butter found in the peat bogs of Ireland has been found dating back to 400 B.C. Historians hypothesize that the Celts were trying to preserve this spread to have something to eat if they’re out of provisions or that it may have been a gift to appease the fairies or ancient pagan gods.

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The ancient Romans associated butter with the barbaric pagans of Gaul and in order to not associate themselves with that “kind” of people they used olive oil on their bread. However, they did use butter for cosmetic purposes and for the healing of wounds.  

Butter does appear to be a mystery to ancient peoples and as such, it was considered magical and offered to the gods for protection and healing. The Egyptians used a paste of butter, sawdust and dirt to plump up a mummies skin when they were entombed.

In medieval times butter became quite common in Northern Europe but the ruling classes considered it peasant food. In southern Europe, butter was rare and expensive and considered a luxury. Good salesmen from the south cashed in on the Lenten prohibition of the Catholic Church to not eat butter by selling oil to the north. 

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In those times butter was prohibited during Lent and many people chose to pay a fee imposed by the Catholic Church that allowed them to eat butter. This is why the tower on the Rouen Cathedral in France is nicknamed the Butter Tower because the money raised from this fee built churches.

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People from the Mediterranean area believed until at least the 18th century that butter was a cause of leprosy that seemed to be so common in the north.

In medieval times in Norway, the king was due taxes at Yule time and one of those taxes was a bucket of butter from every household. During World War II in Norway, butter emerged as one of the most desirable “units of currency”. Butter also role in celebrations and festivals and was moulded into large sculptures.   

What is butter made of?

Usually, butter in the western world is made from cow’s milk, though goats, sheep and even yaks and buffaloes are used in some parts of the world. However, not all milk-producing animals produce milk that can be made into butter because their milk is lower in fat which means it is very hard to churn.

Butter is made from cream which is churned according to Wikipedia butter is made by churning milk or cream to separate the fat globules from the buttermilk. Salt and food colourings are sometimes added to butter. … Butter remains a firm solid when refrigerated, but softens to a spreadable consistency at room temperature, and melts to a thin liquid consistency at 32 to 35 °C

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These days butter is once again on many a table and various types of butter are promoted by both Chefs and foodies. With small-batch artisanal production, you can now find hand-churned, slow-churned, cultured and high-fat content butter at many a local farm shop or farmer’s market.

Types of Butter – Butterfat content is critical

Most cultures throughout the world use butter and I have found that I definitely prefer the sweet cream butter while housesitting here in France. When I was in Mexico the butter always tasted sour to me so I stuck with the one I could find that tasted most like sweet cream which was Lurpak. Apparently in Mexico, they add lactic acid which I assume gives more of a cultured butter flavour sadly to me it just tastes rancid and sour.

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American Butter vs European Butter

American Butter is sold in both salted and unsalted varieties. The UDA requires it to have 80% butterfat which makes for a milder more neutrally flavoured butter. Amish Butter is gorgeous as it’s made by churning a high dairy fat cream resulting in an 84% butterfat content.

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Butter around the world

Irish Butter has 82% butterfat and its deep yellow colour and rich flavour come from the green fields of Ireland. The grass is full of beta carotene and it gives the butter its rich creamy taste.  English butter is similar to Irish butter in its butterfat but I find it less creamy than the Irish and that is probably because the dairy cows are fed a mixture of grass and grain.

Butter around the World - Irish Glenstal butter made from summer milk is on the paper that wraps around this round of sweet cream Irish butter

Cultured cream butter is what you will typically find across Europe. Like Irish butter, it must contain 82% butterfat and traditionally it was made from fermented or soured cream which gives it that similar “tang” of Mexican style butter. Using lactic acid as the culture it supposedly gives a richer butter. Personally, I don’t like that tangy flavour in my butter but I assume that’s all down to personal taste.

Clarified butter is butter that has had the milk solids and water removed leaving just the butterfat. These have a higher smoke point and makes them perfect for cooking and sautéing.

Ghee is an ultra-refined clarified butter used mainly in Central Asia. In Ancient Indian cultures, ghee which means bright in Sanskrit was used as an offering to the gods.  

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French speciality kinds of butter are almost pure butterfat and made by melting butter down and separating the fat from the water and milk solids by a centrifugal process. These kinds of butter have specific melting points ranging from 80°F to 104°F based on the chef’s needs. Beurre cuisinier, beurre pâtissier, and beurre concentré are all different specialty butters.

Butter in France that is labelled with AOP or AOC is a protected butter from a specific region. Similar to a wine like Champagne or cheeses like Camembert de Normandie, kinds of butter that are AOP or AOC are only made by producers who follow strict rules and use only milk produced in one of three regions, depending on the AOP on which they depend: Isigny, Bresse, or Charentes-Poitou.

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Breton or Butter from Brittany France

Brittany’s butter is special, most often salted, in particular using salt from Guérande. In the past, the region was exempt from the salt tax. Brittany brought these two products together to ensure that its butter would keep for longer.

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Butter that’s described as ‘beurre fin’ or ‘beurre extra-fine is made from pasteurised milk, whereas raw butter comes from non-pasteurised milk that can be kept for a shorter time but has a richer range of flavours.

Butter referred to as ‘de baratte’ is made by the age-old technique of churning the cream in a wooden churn. Depending on the amount of salt, butter is classed as ‘half-salted’ (between 0.5% and 3%) or salted butter (more than 3% and possibly containing salt crystals).

One of the finest butter makers in Brittany is Jean-Yves Bordier. He began making butter in 1985 in the traditional Breton method of kneading butter which he perfected. The milk collected to make the fabulous Bordier Butter is produced in both organic farms located in Brittany and Normandy. In the summer, each farm pays careful attention to getting the cows out to the pastures. In the winter, they are fed with silage from aerated drying pens which preserves the quality of the alfalfa.

Butter around the world varies according to the culture, the weather and the methods of making the butter. Since I don’t like yoghurt I realized that many European butters just taste slightly off to me and that is the tang from the cultures used. Do you have a favourite butter?

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