At a recent show, a tall middle-aged man came into my booth and, picking up one of my dome covered Brie bakers asked, “Is this a Canadian butter dish?” I had no idea what he meant by a Canadian butter dish, but assured him that he could use it however he wished. He explained that in Canada, butter comes in round discs, not sticks as in the U.S.
In Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, Khosrova tells us that during the Middle Ages and later, butter was often shaped into long tubes by the dairy maids who were responsible for butter making. Purchasers would bring a tube home, and slice it into rounds as needed. So, my Brie maker would have made a perfect butter dish not only for Canadians but also for fifteenth century peasants. The book is full of similar fascinating tidbits and facts. Though it is not specifically for potters – I exaggerated a bit in the title – if you are a potter interested in food and food history and the relationship of particular foods to pottery, it will be a fun read for you.
Khosrova, a former pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, takes us on a world tour as well as a historical tour. The first butter, she tells us, was made from the milk of sheep, yak and goats. To make butter, she explains, the milk, or if it has been separated, cream, is agitated until it thickens and clumps. She writes, “The Sumerians of 2500 B.C.E. used special terra cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool (called the dash or dasher in English) for churning.”
Early churns were made of animal skins. Khosroba traveled to Bhutan and describes the making of Yak butter in similar leather bags. But, as with the Sumerians, pottery has always had a place in butter making. Pottery jugs and pancheons were also important. Pancheons, which are one of the most beautiful pottery shapes that I can think of, were large, wide mouthed pans, with flaring straight sides, used for settling the milk so that the cream could be skimmed off the top. Churns were commonly made of wood, but glazed stoneware churns kept the cream cooler than other materials, which helped with the process, and was cleaner.
Curiously, Khosrova does not discuss butter dishes, French, which preserve the butter’s freshness with a water seal, or the various lidded ceramic dishes popular today. She does, however, conclude her book with a wonderful collection of recipes for pastries and sauces, each of which cries out for a pretty handmade serving dish. Or so it seems to me.