SkillShare – Butter Making

On 3rd & 4th January, as part of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, members of the Youth Food Movement UK will be at The Garden & Vaults Café to share the skill of butter-making.

SkillShare is one of the ways in which the Youth Food Movement connects young people with their food.  Butter-making is just one of the skills that they share, but will be especially relevant at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in a year when dairy farmers have often received less than the cost of production for raw milk.  Cream in particular is not receiving the premium that it used and so looking for ways to add value to this product is particularly important.

The revival of “forgotten skills” that has occurred as a result of people wanting to lead more sustainable lives has already scored successes in baking, preserving and foraging but I would be willing to bet that even people already actively practising these skills don’t make their own butter.  Yet until the 19th century almost every household did.

One of the last people to have witnessed at first hand these dying skills in rural England was Dorothy Hartley, whose book Food in England was published in 1954.  Of butter making she wrote…

“In all England I hardly knew a craft that varies more than making butter…If I tried to tell you all the different ways butter was made in England, there would be room for nothing else in this book.”

She does however find space to refer to the preference for Sweet Cream butter that is characteristic of Britain (and America) whilst continental Europe prefers butter made with cultured cream.

When butter was made at home it was usually made in small quantities with the cream from that day’s milking.  If however it was necessary to store the cream for two or three days before making butter it would naturally have begun to sour.  Likewise the residue from milk or cream that had first been used for another purpose, such as cheese, would have been heated and had the addition of cultures to separate the curds from the whey.  Butter comes only from the butterfat present in cream, leaving a residue of buttermilk, and whilst there will be only a small percentage of butterfat in the whey left over from making cheese, what is present can still be separated out to make butter.  In modern commercial butter making cultures are usually added and it is now very rare, even in Britain, to taste butter that has been made from unpasteurised sweet-cream.  Pasteurisation has extended the keeping qualities of butter, which can now be kept for some months, whereas the refrigerated shelf-life of unpasteurised butter is roughly 10 days, less if it is not salted.

Are people likely to return to making butter at home?  Two of double cream will make about one pound of butter and a pint of buttermilk.  It does not make sense financially if you are paying retail prices for cream.  However, electric mixers take the hard work out of churning. In fact it is by accidentally over-beating cream with an electric mixer that you are most likely to encounter butter in a domestic kitchen.  Sadly most people fail to recognise that they have, unwittingly, created another product and simply throw away the result.  So the SkillShare will at least show you how to rinse out the buttermilk and avoid this waste.  There are other signs of a growing interest in how butter is made.  Stockholm’s Restaurant Frantzen-Lindeberg, considered one of the world’s 50 best, sets its tables with bread already proving and whilst that is taken away to bake diners make their own butter. It is not just a gimmick, but an effort to reconnect diners with how their food is made and to give them the opportunity to taste what freshly made butter tastes like.  Whether the result will be a resurgence in home butter-making or better production by commercial producers I’m not yet sure, but either way it is a skill worth understanding and Oxford is a lot closer than Stockholm, so do pop in and give it a try.

Suzanne Wynn December 2012

More About Skillshare:

‘YFM UK developed the Skillshare to bring the idea of an apprenticeship or a stage to larger numbers of people. Most youngsters will never be able to go and learn from an artisan at their farm or dairy so the butter-making Skillshare brings the skill to them. The simplicity of butter making means that a familiar everyday food stuff is raised to the level of alchemy for youthful eyes, when a child sees the liquid turning to a solid, there is a definite light bulb moment and this new perspective has positive repercussion for all their interactions with food.’

Katy Davidson

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