Going to Ireland...for the Virgin Butter

Going to Ireland...for the Virgin Butter

By Christine Ciarmello

Bread and Butter
SourceChris Everard/Getty


There really are pots of gold in Ireland. 

By Christine Ciarmello

Ireland is famed for its castles, its culture and, of course, its craic. But it’s also worth a visit for an underexplored tourist attraction: butter, made from the fresh milk of pasture-grazing cows. Chef Ryan Murphy tells OZY he finds Ireland’s butter superior to even France’s. Mon dieu! The former New Yorker once cooked at the Ballyfin hotel outside Dublin, where guests can slather up their Irish soda bread with aristocratic zeal. In fact, butter is so revered by the Irish that a few tourist attractions are devoted to the country’s yellow gold. 

The city of Cork, which in the 1700s was home to the largest butter exchange in the world, boasts the Cork Butter Museum, complete with tales of cow raiding and a keg of 1,000-year-old butter that had been buried in a bog. While a ticket to the museum costs 4 euros (about $4.50), admission to English Market is free — as is a gawk at the food hall’s buttered eggs, sold at Moynihan’s. At Ballymaloe Cookery School, set on 400 emerald acres in Shanagarry, participants can help milk the Jersey cows, whose output will made into butter, yogurt and cheese. And bikers can ride down old Butter Road, the roughly 70-mile route traveled by dairy farmers toting their firkins (small barrels) to the exchange.

It all comes down to the grass. And the cow. And a lot of grazing.

What makes Ireland’s butter better? “We grow fantastic grass,” says presenter, author and Ballymaloe’s co-founder Darina Allen. Butter, like wine, tastes of its terroir, says Allen, who churns out high-quality variations, including fermented virgin butters. The nutty, intense flavor comes from lactic acids and bacteria — the very microbes and proteins washed away in mass-produced butter to prevent souring and to prolong shelf life. Not always easy to buy, virgin butter is found at Ballymaloe and other foodie hangouts, like Noma, in Copenhagen.


It also comes down to the kind of cow. Milk from Jerseys is known for its high butterfat content. European butters must be at least 82 percent butterfat (in the U.S., it’s 80 percent). Ireland’s mild weather allows cows to graze on pastures all day for up to 300 days a year, says Kelsey Brennan, a spokesperson for Kerrygold, the brand name for the Irish Dairy Board. In contrast, most American butters come from the milk of grain-fed Holsteins that live in barns and on feedlots.

Cork is home to the irish Butter Museum.

Cork, Ireland, is home to the Cork Butter Museum.

Source Peter O’Toole/Shutterstock

But Irish butters aren’t consistent, says Irv Holmes of Challenge Dairy Products, a cooperative of 600 dairy farms in California, the largest milk-producing state. The flavor is at the whim of the climate. Plus, if you are buying Kerrygold stateside, that overseas journey could affect the butter’s freshness. And be prepared for sticker shock. A pound of salted Kerrygold is $9.98, while the same amount of salted Challenge is $4.29.

Is paying more than double worth it? That depends, says pastry chef and cookbook author Amy Machnak. Fresh butter on bread? Yes. Shortbread? Absolutely. Chocolate cake? Nah — the chocolate will cloak the butter. While Irish butter has a dedicated following, including Machnak, this may be due in part to smart marketing, she says. A country not typically noted for its culinary prowess — how much mileage can you get out of the potato? — has found a sweet ingredient to sink a knife into.