When I was 11 my parents gingerly stepped onto the long winding path to self-sufficiency, with me caught up in the slipstream of their dreams. A goat or five installed here, a fistful of chickens sprouting up there. Another sliver of garden being dug up for veggies. A steaming compost heap or two adorned with exotic-looking fungi courtesy of the deposits harvested from the circus elephants stationed in the town park once a year…
For 6 years we continued to live our own version of The Good Life in respectable, staid suburbia – a village of the kind that on the whole doesn’t keep farm livestock on the lawn and stash cockerels in the cellar to stop them from crowing at crack of sparrow. Most people grew begonias and roses in neat beds, not rampaging artichokes and a thicket of raspberries laced with goosegrass. They mowed their lawns at the weekend with petrol mowers not small tribes of friendly guinea-pigs in rectangular runs moved block by block up the lawn in a stately progression of increasingly nibbled patches.
Behind the polished brass knocker (one of my pocket money chores) of our conventional front door, I would lie on the living room carpet, chin in hand, and pore over Home Farm magazine and other such edifying publications of the day for those who aspired to knit their own yoghurt. Chief of these was John Seymour’s classic The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. I would study the sepia pen and ink illustrations for hours, noting the perfectly square 5 acre plot with stream, woodland, barns and garden all in precisely the right places and aspects for maximum efficiency. If 5 acres was too hot to handle then there was an alternative 1 acre diagram – but I always got the feeling that Guru John considered it very much a poor relation and only for those slackers who wimped out of the full-fat version. These curiously weed-free sketches were a thing of beauty in which he laid down the law on crop rotations, the requisite livestock and sundry skills needed to keep such a utopian dream ticking over like a harmonious baler. They were my childhood holy grail – a box-ticking list of things You Have To Have To Survive.
Guru John, it turned out, was painting pictures to sell dreams neatly packaged up in words to fund his own self-sufficiency. When we finally landed some years later, limbs and brains akimbo, surrounded by colour-coded packing cases, bewildered goats and transplanted chickens on our 15 acres (fifteen, John!) of north-facing Welsh hillside we quickly learned you don’t buy the dream as a plan. You sweat it out of every pore and your haemorrhaging wallet…
Still, 20 years on, what’s left of the original troops seem to have thrived, Nietzsche-style. No one would paint sepia-tinted images of our lives, least of all me. But by sheer bloody-mindedness and sometimes farcical twists of fate, I’ve accumulated a CV that consists of a range of post-apocolyptic skills that could give an Amish a run for their buttons. I may be entirely unfitted for the 21st Century Big Smoke but I have scratched a number of obscure notches on the barn door frame. What can I say; it makes for novel party conversation…
One other tome I had devoured actually included a prescriptive List of Things You Should Be Able To Say You Have Done. I’ve forgotten most of them but one that did stick in my mind was making butter – and I’d knocked that one out when I was a mere 14 years old. It took about 3 days and gallons of goats’ milk settling in shallow bowls, frantic skimming off the top and an awful lot of shaking this cream up in an empty jam jar. The resulting tiny soft white lump of grease I ended up with looked unappealingly like lard thanks to the lack of carotene in goat’s milk that makes cow’s butter a rich yellow. It probably took more calories to make than it would replenish. But my dad kindly ate it all the same whilst telling me about my thrifty grandparents in their pre-fridge days close on the heels of rationing, shaking up tiny pats of butter from spare cream so as to avoid wasting it.
Shortly after my parents scored a huge antique butter churn in an auction for a few pounds. It leaked like crazy, spraying liquid up the walls as it was cranked and would have required huge amounts of cream to justify putting it into action (even if said cream wasn’t going to dribble straight out between its wooden ribs). And I wasn’t about to try harvesting that much from our goats slight offerings or risk imbibing who-knows-what from its musty-smelling wooden interior. I think it got left behind when we moved. Still, the knowledge I’d actually done it once – tick! – gave me a warm buttery glow even if I’d not repeated the experience for a quarter of a century.
Until the other week that is, when I passed an array of Kilner products in the local kitchen shop. It amused me that something you could only dig out of a garage sale two decades ago was now being manufactured for the Country Loving lifestyle. It amused me so much we just had to buy one…
It stipulated whipping cream but I think I’d try double cream next time. You also have to leave it to stand for a few hours to get to room temperature so that it will separate out as you churn. Anyway, 600ml later and we were off.
The instructions say it would get frothy after a few minutes. After 5 or so it would thicken, after 8-10 it would become stiff and then suddenly separate out into butter and buttermilk shortly after.
After 10 minutes I handed the churn full of still-liquid cream to my mother and rubbed my aching forearm…
After 5 minutes more churning she too paused. We agreed to adjourn the dairy activities and allow it to warm up for another hour.
Some time into the second stint of churning (I wasn’t counting any more) it looked vaguely like it was thickening.
We briefly discussed if it was cheating to use an electric whisk to give ourselves a boost and then return it to the churn for the finishing line…
Dismissing all unworthy thoughts of kitchen aids, I woman-fully resumed churning and soon it started to whirr in a slightly lower key.
…and then suddenly, as if by magic, the yellow butter grains appeared sloshing around in creamy buttermilk.
I poured off the buttermilk (this tastes like skim milk and is great for baking with).
You have to rinse every last trace of buttermilk from the butter – it’s less relevant in our refrigerator days perhaps but the watery component of milk and cream is an ideal growing medium for bacteria and leaving traces of it behind in the lipids would cause the butter to spoil (or go bitter just like poor old Betty Botter’s batter butter in the tongue-twister).
You need really cold water – ice-cold – especially in a heatwave like we’re having at the moment. It’s probably over-stating the obvious to say if you use warm water it will melt your brand-new butter pretty darn quick. Marley appreciated the first rinsing with tiny blobs of butter grains floating about it in and chased his bowl around the kitchen getting the last licks out! A couple of rinses got clear water and then you work it with butter hands to squeeze out all the remaining water.
This being our family, we naturally just happen to have a pair of butter hands packed away. These got scrupulously cleaned of 25 years of dust and soaked in Milton to sterilise. They work really well to squeeze out the water – if you keep them dipped in cold water the butter doesn’t stick to them at all.
Salt was traditionally added to help preserve butter. You don’t have to salt it though and those who try to reduce dietary salt might appreciate the pure taste of fresh butter. But mostly we’ve got used to the flavour of salted butter and I added a sprinkle of my favourite Halen Môn sea salt from the shores of Anglesey. And then worked it in.
It occurred to me this action was not unlike mixing cement by hand with a shovel. Which is another of my random skills set.
I also nipped off a tiny amount to experiment with adding smoked sea salt which I love. This butter is pure indulgence and not something you will fry onions in. This is what you spread on a thin naked cracker and savour every tiny crumb…
I’d watched butter-making demos as a child when visiting Acton Scott Historic Working Farm Museum. The “dairymaids” there would show the patterns imprinted into the pats of butter – an easy way to “label” a farm’s butter so people could know who had made it.
Imprinting pretty patterns wasn’t that high on my list but I did press a lattice into the top before putting it in the fridge to firm up as the temperatures are around 24 C at the moment – not your average Welsh weather!
Yesterday my mother made a small batch of scones using some of the buttermilk. It was immensely satisfying to eat home made scones, with home made butter and freshly picked strawberries – even if we didn’t produce the cream!!
Making butter this way clearly isn’t economic, although it was actually only slightly more expensive than buying it ready made – without accounting for the initial purchase of the churn. 600ml of cream produced just over 250g of butter plus around 300ml of buttermilk so it is fairly productive even if time-consuming. We don’t milk goats any more and whilst I’ve long wanted a Jersey cow, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’d be as fat as ticks living off that much dairy produce anyway. We’re not likely to buy cream just to make butter. Although I’d probably eat less if I did which would be a good thing.
But it was hardly the point of the exercise. Although I’d still buy butter to cook with, it’s nice to know that I can make butter if I feel like it for gifts. Or if there should be spare cream leftover so it wouldn’t go to waste – just like my grandparents did. With an awful lot less shaking and jam jars.
Way to go, Kilner, that was a better bit of butter than I’ve had for a long time. Now where did I put that scone…