Boutyrophagoi – The Butter Eaters

Sometimes my complacency with living in the 21st century makes me forget certain facts that were somewhat important back in the day. Butter provides an excellant example of this. I buy butter, I take butter home, I place said butter in the refrigerator for later use.

Back in the time before refrigerators, butter was a product that had to be used sooner than later, as it tends to turn rancid after a set period of time. Because of this, butter, as we know it, never really took off in areas of Mediterranean Europe. This, even though the butter making process had been known since as far back as perhaps 8000 or 9000 BCE. Butter did take off in areas of the world where either…

  1. …had a cooler climate which prohibited butter from become rancid at an advanced rate, or…
  2. …developed a process/technology that removed the water content from butter, essentially removing any risk of spoilage.

This simple difference in climate and technologies helped shaped a great many food cultures we take for granted today. Southern Italian, Greek and Mexican cuisines get their fats from places other than butter. German, Northern French, and a great majority of Indian cuisines (in the form of Ghee) have a great many dishes where the fats come from butter. I love this kind of “cuisine etymology”, where the type of food one eats is dependant upon such a minute variable as the ability to store butter for an extended period of time.

Speaking of Ghee (and how many times have you heard THAT segue? None, I bet), when talking about butter in history, ghee has to be mentioned. It was recognized early as a very important component of life in what is now present day India and Pakistan. So much so, that it made it into various religious rituals. Sound familiar? That’s because the Catholics ascribed the same level of significance to olive oil. You can say a lot about human nature, but one thing is for certain – We humans love our fats.

Expect more on butter (including a few select recipes) over the next few weeks.

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