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Originally the liquid left after cream has been churned to make butter. Most sold in supermarkets is now artificially cultured from skimmed milk. The result is thick and slightly tangy. As it"s virtually fat-free, buttermilk is also a good base for low-fat fruit milkshakes.
In medieval times, buttermilk was an important part of the British diet. As well as being a popular drink, especially in hilly rural regions, and in parts of Scotland - in Edinburgh it was known as sour-dook, and in the 18th century sellers rode around the city on horseback with barrels strapped to their saddles as well as milk, which they also sold; in London there were town dairy shops and milkmaids walked the streets carrying pails sling from yolks across their shoulders, and sold milk and buttermilk from door to door - ; it was also boiled with oatmeal to make porridge, and used to make scones and other girdle cakes. In the Shetland Islands its own whey was fermented, and then "matured" in oak casks for a few months, to make a wine-like drink. See Sour-dook.