Week 2: At the dairy

If anyone were to paint a stereotype of the Irish countryside, it’s likely to include plenty of plump cows, luscious grass, and a drizzle of rain. This is no coincidence: the sodden climate is responsible for the luscious grass, which is responsible for the plump cows, who are responsible for the remarkable Irish dairy products.

Milk, cream and their derivatives are solemnly revered at Ballymaloe cookery school, and so it’s fitting that early in the course, Darina seeks to convert her congregation with a sermon on dairy. According to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), Ireland produces 5.5 billion litres of milk every year and is a pillar of the Irish economy worth over €3 billion.

Darina has published odes to Irish butter in books and newspapers, and is simply delighted that dairy is swinging back into fashion, no longer an artery-clogging grim reaper “proven by a scientific study made by someone, somewhere we can’t remember and certainly don’t care about”. Tucked away at the back of the campus is a small dairy complete with a herd of Jersey cows who keep the school well stocked in milk and cream.

Ballymaloe dairy

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From left to right: Poppy (Jersey), Daisy (Jersey), Teresa (Jersey/Friesian cross), enjoying breakfast at the milk bar. Teresa is the celebrity of the herd, and currently makes a whopping 16 litres of milk a day.

Early on Monday morning, it was my turn in the rota to help with milking. I must admit, I had romanticised the dairy, expecting a more “wooden stool, bonnet and pales-balanced-on-a-yoke” experience than “disinfected wellingtons, rubber aprons and antibacterial hand wash”. Milk is packed full of nutrients and is the perfect host for bacteria, which is why shop-bought milk is pasteurised, killing bacteria good and bad indiscriminately. However, there are proven health benefits of consuming low levels of these bacteria in raw (unpasteurised) milk for the immune system, eczema and hay fever. It’s also delicious. This is why the dairy, which does not pasteurise its milk, thank you very much, is particularly vigilant on maintaining hygiene standards – they see it as waging a constant war against contamination. The milk is tested for bacteria levels on a monthly basis, and performs excellently.

This is how milking works:

The cows waddle into the milking area, relieved it’s milking time but annoyed that their calves don’t get it all (Teresa made her feelings known). Below you’ll see the machinery which is used to extract the milk, which feeds through to the vessel, and transferred to a device which spins the milk so the lighter cream is skimmed off from one tap and the heavier milk from another. The speed of the spin determines the percentage of fat in the milk – 3.5% for full fat milk, 1.5% for semi-skimmed. You can drink the milk straight from the spinner. Easy as that.

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What I learned this week

Ever tried to whip cream, then forgotten about it for 5 minutes to find a lumpy mess sitting in a puddle? Well, the lumpy mess is butter, and the puddle is buttermilk. So next time you can pass it off like you were doing it on purpose. All you have to do is drain and wash the butter solids several times in water, kneading it until the water runs clear, and then add some salt to preserve it. To the same effect, you can also put the cream in a jam jar and shake – a good way to distract children apparently, but quite hard work.

Darina’s step by step guide to making butter is in the Guardian, here:

Have a go!

New business idea: Organic homemade flavoured butter company (obviously.)

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