In 1970, I came across, in Paddy the Cope Gallagher's shop in Gweedore, a product I had never seen before: Whey Butter!
Little Miss Muffet, of course, sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey. It is a very ancient pastural practice to separate milk into these two parts. First the cream is taken off, from which butter is made. The remainder is rich in protein, of which 80% is casein protein and about 20% is whey protein. Curds are mainly casein, and Whey, the main protein in the watery substance left behind.
Now I thought I had discovered a butter made from the watery protein content of the milk! I was mistaken, since whey butter is actually made from a residual fat content of the watery whey obtained by making cheese by adding rennet to full-fat milk. The rennet curdles the milk; the solid part is taken off to form into cheese, and the "whey" is the watery part left behind.
I tried out the whey-butter, and found it very satisfactory for spreading on bread. I assumed it was not suitable for cooking (being, as I thought, devoid of fat).
I looked in many other shops, not only in Donegal, but in Dublin and other towns, and never found another shop stocking it.
If I was interested in this product, then there must be thousands of others. The "health food" sector must be one good outlet! Yet, I had never heard of it.
Ireland relied heavily on its exports of Irish Creamery Butter. Curds were often used to make cottage cheese, and Whey was more or less a waste bye-product, except for feeding to pigs. Now I saw it as potentially having significant value. All it required was marketing!
I thought the matter interesting enough to mention it at a departmental conference. I was working in the Gaeltacht Department at the time. This department was quite contrarian in its policies, setting up industrial estates, for example, in remote wastelands. (Seamus O Raghallaigh, its senior officer in Donegal, was actually a founder member and editing secretary of the Regional Science Association International, which promulgated the economics of remote industrial estates).
The Department took interest and raised the matter with the Dairy Board. A reply was soon received to the effect that "we have a very effective marketing campaign going on under the slogan 'Butter is the Cream,' so we are not in favour at present of promoting whey butter!"
Shortly afterwards, a departmental colleague mentioned to me that a group of Kerry farmers were taking interest in the product. By 1972 the North Kerry Farmers Cooperative had set up a joint venture with the Dairy Disposal Company (a state-owned company) and Erie Casein Company (an American company already involved in marketing milk proteins). There was an abundant supply of milk in County Kerry. After separating the milk, the remaining low-fat milk was initially used to extract casein for the manufacture of cheese and plastic, leaving whey as the waste product. Now they were interested in pursuing the potential of whey as a valuable product. In the following years, whey became the basis of muscle-building foods.
This North Kerry Cooperative venture evolved into Kerry Group, which has an annual revenue of €6 Billion and employs 24,000 people worldwide. While casein products were its inspiration, it never confined itself to that and markets around 15,000 products.
Meanwhile "Butter is the Cream" became unstuck. There was a sudden turn against consumption of saturated fats by those who guide public health. Everybody put low-fat milk on the table in place of full-fat milk. A flood of poly-unsaturated margarines flooded the market. Irish people stopped having the glass of milk with their lunch. People everywhere switched to low-fat, sugary foods and drinks. "Curds" became virtually the waste product in place of Whey!
Result of the flight from fats to sugars: an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. It turns out that natural fats are not the bogey-man after all, but sugars.
Now our health advisers are telling us that full-fat milk and butter are good for us after all!
Of coursse, Kerry Group kept up to date with the changes in perception and in October 2015 launched the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute, "your trusted destination for health, nutrition & general wellness science and policies."
Proinnsias - Krunchie As
"Proinnsias" sounds the same as "Krunchie as," except with a P instead of a K. I was christened "Francis Killeen," but adopted the Irish form of this name "Proinnsias Ó Cillín." ("Cillín," which means "treasure," sounds exactly the same as "Killeen"). Some people have difficulty pronouncing "Proinnsias," and some children in my neighbourhood called me "Krunchie," a nickname that stuck.