Since I’ve written so many times here about the Kerry Cow, I thought I’d give you the article I wrote this week for today’s Irish Times (the recipe will follow)…
When West Kerry farmer Colm Murphy first brought some Kerry cow milk to Murphys Ice Cream for us to sample, we were delighted. The test batch of ice cream came out smoother, creamier, and just plain delicious. The milk impressed our entire team, and our customers also responded to the improved taste, although most expressed bafflement when we mentioned the Kerry cow. “You mean a cow from Kerry?” It seems our indigenous breed has largely faded from our consciousness.
Once, however, the Kerry was indispensable. It is one of the oldest breeds in Europe (probably brought to Ireland from the Mediterranean by Neolithic wanderers) and the first developed for milking. Our ancestors churned Kerry cow butter, concocted Kerry cow cheeses, and stored milk treated with herbs in jars underground while other prehistoric people hunted and gathered with stone tools. So valuable was the Kerry that under Brehon Law the top unit of currency was the milking cow. There’s a traditional song, “I wish I had a Kerry cow, a Kerry cow, a Kerry cow…” No wonder it’s repeated. Your cows defined your wealth, and if you owned a few of them, you were doing ok.
By the late 1970s, however, the value of a milking cow diminished to the volume it produced, and Friesans dominated the Irish herd. The little Kerry, famous for quality, not quantity, faced extinction. At the lowest point, only 100 Kerry cows survived worldwide, and half of them lived on Raymonde Hilliard’s farm in Killarney. When I took a break from our Killarney shop to visit her, Ms. Hilliard told me about farmer after farmer retiring or giving up their herds until saving the Kerry cow seemed a hopeless cause. Luckily, herself and a few other champions of the breed persevered, and the government finally introduced a protection scheme in the early 1980s. Since then, the population of the Kerry has slowly increased to its present total of 1,100. That may sound quite healthy, but to put it in perspective, there are 1,600 giant pandas in the wild, and they are considered extremely endangered.
Although there is still a decline of Irish dairy farmers, Colm Murphy is not about to give up. He loves his herd, and the Kerry cows impress him. “I’ve never had to lift the hoof of a Kerry,” he says, “and I have never had a problem with calving.” At Murphys Ice Cream, we don’t know about such things, but we do know we have never tasted better milk. This week’s recipe is “crema,” Italy’s most popular ice cream. Crema is an unflavoured frozen custard, perfect for savouring the flavour of Kerry cow milk – if you’re lucky enough to have some.
For more, visit the Kerry Cattle Society.