The Romans often commented on the inferiority of other cultures, and they took excessive milk drinking as evidence of barbarism. Similarly, butter was a useful ointment for burns; it was not a suitable food. As Pliny the Elder bluntly put it, butter is “the choicest food among barbarian tribes.”
The Greeks called it boutyros, cow curds, and as sheep and goat people, they regarded those who kept cows and made butter as an alien lot. The Thracians, the people who lived to the north of Greece, ancestors of the Bulgarians and others, ate butter. Greeks contemptuously referred to them as “butter eaters.”
But the Greco-Roman disdain for dairy stopped short at cheese. In Rome, cheese was eaten by both the rich and the poor. A considerable variety of hard, soft, and smoked cheeses were produced in the city, and others were imported from around the empire. Smoked goat’s-milk cheese from Velabrum, the valley by the Forum that runs up to Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, was especially popular, part of a general fondness for smoking foods. Cheeses were often given as gifts, and they were a standard breakfast food, along with olives, eggs, bread, honey, and sometimes leftovers from the night before.
For Mediterranean people had little need for butter. They already had olive oil, which is less prone to spoilage, heats to much higher temperatures without burning, and was and is regarded as more healthful. Even now in North Africa, most of Greece and Italy, Mediterranean France and Spain, olive oil dominates and butter is rarely used.
Climate, then, determined the poor status of butter and milk. Because they spoiled quickly in the climate of southern Europe and kept far better in northern Europe, northerners used far more milk. Germanic people were avid butter eaters and were said to have perfected salted butter. The Celts, who settled down in good dairying spots such as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, also became known for their butter.
This led southern classical cultures, which were already contemptuous of northerners, to take the greater consumption of dairy as evidence of their barbarian nature. To hear the Romans tell it, the barbarians to their north were swilling milk by the mugful. (In actuality, they were consuming milk conservatively; a cow was an expensive animal to maintain.)
Differences in climate made butter and milk a mark of barbarism. Since the presence of large, powerful cities and cultures in the far north is a relatively modern development, this linked any non-cheese dairy with inferior (or at least less powerful) groups.
These days we have refrigerators.