Butter and Dairy in the Middle Ages
Growing up on a dairy farm in Northeast Wisconsin was quite an experience. I learned how to do many things, such as feed animals, drive tractor, fix machinery, and most of all, milk a cow. Cows milk was the primary income for my family when I was growing up. We would milk the cows once in the morning and then again at night. For storage we would keep the milk in a 300 gallon bulk tank that was cooled by a Freon compression system similar to a large refrigerator except that it circulated cold water around the tank within the outer tank, a type of double dull configuration. Then every day at mid morning a big truck would come and pump the milk from the tank and take it to the milk plant to be made into cheese and butter. One day I thought of an odd question, how did the milk stay cold before artificial refrigeration. I had always wondered how they kept milk cold prior to refrigerators and also how they were able to transport it many miles during the summer when there was nothing to keep it cold and the journey took a lot longer than today due to transportation being a team of horses or oxen. I had always had theories but never did the research to follow up on them. Then this class came along and I thought it would be a great opportunity to research the history of dairy prior to development of modern methods. So here we have it, dairy in the Middle Ages.
Milk was a staple food for many during the Middle Ages. Mostly used by infants and poor people, milk was abundant wherever cattle and goats and other milk producing animals were available.  Wealthy people often refrained from drinking milk, however it was consumed regularly by the poor. In addition to a nice and refreshing drink, milk was used for a lot of cooking, even on days when fasting prohibited to consumption of animal meats and fats. Milk was seen to have medicinal properties too, and many physicians recommended it for ailments. However, it was advised to not drink milk and alcohol together, as the combination may cause a belly ache and diarrhea. Milk was at that time not very transportable nor was it able to be stored for a long period of time, hence my question as to how milk products were stored before modern conveniences such as the refrigerator.
The answer, convert the milk into a sturdier product that resists spoilage longer and can be easily transported. One of these answers was making milk into butter.  Butter had been in use since antiquity, when the Greeks used it for more of an ointment for slipping out of naked wrestling matches I guess. Butter was made using a churn that would separate the fats of the milk from the liquid or buttermilk, which could be used for a variety of purposes later. Butter could be transported better than milk and would not spoil as quickly, especially if it was not in contact with the sun and kept in a cool, dry place.  During Lent, butter could be used on fish in most cases, however, in some cases it was still banned from consumption by the Church. Butter could also be used for medical reasons, most notably as a relief for teething babies and was celebrated by doctors for giving good blood flow and preventing coughs. Get Paula Dean on the phone and tell her all is well on the butter front and keep tossing those sticks into her recipes. We will all live a better life with butter.
Another answer to the storage and transportation problem was cheese. Cheese was being made since prehistoric times and many of the great civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans and the Egyptians had been making and perfecting its various tastes and textures for centuries.  Milk was curdled using rennet then the whey removed. It would then be heated, formed into a shape, salted then aged. The age and dryness of the cheese often depicted its taste and palatability. Cheese that was a little fatty, moderately salted and with medium age was considered to be the champion of all cheeses. Cheese was often eaten at the end of the meal to close up the stomach. Many poor people ate cheese because it kept with them longer when they were engaged in laborious tasks.
As I began looking over many of these items, I found a cook book about various recipes used during the Middle Ages.  There were a lot of interesting recipes dealing with dairy, such as: Brie Tart, Parsnip Ry Alle, Arbolettys, and Sauce Blanc, to name a few.  I began researching certain Viking dishes that were commonly used with dairy products and found skyr. Skyr is a soured milk that was drunk or eaten by many Vikings during their conquests. They all looked very good but being just an amateur, I thought I would start out by making just butter. I like butter and I had always wanted to try to make some of my own, and now I had the chance. I began researching how butter was made back in the day compared to now, and surprisingly enough, it is very similar 1000 years ago as it was to about the early 20th century when many families churned their own butter versus buying it from the store.
During my research I discovered that butter was more common in northern regions due to its ability to keep better in colder climates.  Also, prior to the mid-15th century, butter was not used as much in recipes, roughly 3% prior to 1450 and over 50% after that date. Butter was considered medicinal, odd considering the fact that too much butter nowadays can cause someone to have high cholesterol and have a heart attack and even die. Another interesting tidbit is the depiction of butter making over time in relation to gender roles. In the early Middle Ages, butter churning was considered women’s work, however, by the Renaissance there were paintings of men performing the task. It seems in more modern times, especially in the United States, that butter churning seemed like a women’s chore as well as having the kids of the household take turns all day. As I would soon find out, churning butter takes a lot of time and a lot of elbow grease.
I did some reading as to how butter was made and it has not really changed that much in the last thousand years.  After the milk is collected from the cow, it is left to sit for about a day so that the cream will rise to the surface. This is then skimmed off and put into the churn. Inside the churn there was a plunger called the dasher that would be pumped back and forth until the cream would break and the butter milk liquid would separate from the fats, which would settle at the bottom. This would normally take all day and many members of the family would take turns churning the butter. It is pretty exhausting stuff. After the separation, the butter milk would be drained off and either drank or used for baking. I will get to what was done to the butter fat a little later in the presentation.
Time to collect my ingredients and my tools. Since I do not have cattle anymore on my farm, getting fresh milk was out of the question. I had tried my neighbor, but he is a cheap bastard and would not give me any. So, I went down to the store and bought some cream in a container that I could use for making my butter. The next step was to get my butter churn. I knew that my Aunt had a butter churn and after some procrastination, I eventually asked her. Well, it appears that her butter churn was for decoration and was not able to be used for this experiment. It was missing the stick with the dasher attached to it. The dasher is the thing on the inside that the cream hits against to separate the cream and butter milk from the fats. So, I had to find another mixing tool.
Missing a few things essential to butter making.
Well, luckily for me, my Uncle had this mixer, beater thing that fit to this jar that i could use to separate the cream and milk from the fats. So now we were in business. I poured two (2) quarts of the creamer into the jar and placed the beater firmly on top. Then I began spinning and separating the cream until the fat broke away and started to settle on the bottom of the jar and on the beaters themselves. This took quite a long time. My wife, my mother and I took turns beating the cream until the liquid separated and the cream broke and we saw some fats that would become our butter.
Working hard to mix that stuff and get me some butter.
After hours of literally beating the butter, the cream became thicker then began to separate. Much of the fats settled to the bottom of the jar or to the better and it became more difficult to turn the beaters in the milky mix. I then drain off the buttermilk, which I fed to my cats and then I collected the butter at the bottom of the jar and the beater.
I began removing the excess liquid from the butter and kneading it into a shape. I mixed a little salt for flavor and texture into the butter as I rolled it into a dish mold I was using. It did not mold as well as I thought it would and looked like a blob.
Shaping the butter in the dish. Didn’t work out so well.
I then wrapped it in wax paper and let it chill in the refrigerator. I know they did not have those 1000 years ago, but it was a cool dry place and that is where butter should be left to cure after making. I later did a sample test and it tasted pretty good. Almost as good as being from the store. It was a little sweeter and felt lighter than the butter I am used to but it still was a neat experience. I am interested in trying some of the recipes in the Fabulous Feasts book. For now, I will just enjoy my butter.
Cooking with butter makes everything better.
 Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Food in Medieval Times. Santa Barbara, Calif. Greenwood Publishing, 2004. p45.
 Adamson, p46.
 Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977. p44.
 Adamson, p46-47.
 Cosner, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York. George Braziller, Inc. 1976. pp136-151.
 Serra, Daniel and Hanna Tunberg. An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Oddyssey. Stockholm, ChronoCopia Publishing, 2013. p.14.
 Medieval Life. “Everyday Skills of Medieval Life: Making Butter.” 02 January 2011. Accessed 03 November 2015. totalwingnut.blogspot.com/2011/01/making-butter.html
 Old & Interesting. “Butter Making: Home Churns and Utensils.” Accessed 03 November 2015. www.oldandinteresting.com/history-butter-churns.aspx