The Forgotten Faces of Butter

Some trace butter to the Mongolians who created the most archaic way of butter-making.  The conquests of Asia then diffused the man-modified grease to other ethnic groups where distinct regional styles and methods for crafting it evolved.  Allowing for a sizable time-skip, butter now sits comfortably as the exalted keystone in classic French cuisine .

buttered toast

Acting as the rich slather on toast probably wasn't really the original purpose for butter. Image by A. Carmichael, Stone

However, long before butter appeared as salted or unsalted in grocery store fridges, they held a little more significance in many cultures worldwide.  Regarded as medicinal, magical or sacred, the milk product at one point or another was (and in some places still is ) more cultural symbol than kitchen staple.

During the Vedic Age, Indians believed butter to be divine.  As a deity thought to be able to regenerate life, the bread-spread found its way into prayers and offerings.  Prior to the annexation of Tibet by China, yak butter was not only sculpted, but deceased lamas would bathe in baths of the boiling fat before being embalmed.

yak with woman

Yak butter is sometimes spread on temple statues. Image from B_cool on, Wikipedia Commons.

There is also an old belief among the Bretons that butter had the property to absorb disease, thus its placement near the sick would help combat the ailment.  As it supposedly internalised illnesses, butter used in this fashion was often buried after the death of the sick person.  In Iceland around the seventh-century, folklore attributed the colour of butter as a supernatural connection to fire.  As such, farmers’ prayers made to the smith god Gobhin would include requests to watch over the butter they produced due to its alleged elemental affinity.

buttered pancakes

Butter is still special now, but perhaps in a very different way. Image by Gary Sludden, Photodisc.

Whatever the interpretation, butter was never simply something with too much fat.


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