Butter derives from full fat cream. Prior to industrialisation fresh milk would be poured into a wide, shallow dish which allowed the cream to rise to the surface. The cream would then be skimmed by hand and collected in a jar. Vermeer’s “The Milk Maid” is doing just that in his iconic painting from 1657.
The jar would be topped up every day until there was enough cream to make butter. By way of example 1 kg of butter – or four 250 gr. packs of butter – requires 2.5 lt. of cream. It can take a while to collect such an amount depending on the size of the herd. As the cream rested it fermented spontaneously. The natural and spontaneous fermentation of the cream meant that the cream could never “go off”. The acid from the wild microorganisms are excellent at preventing the colonisation of pathogens meaning that it could safely be preserved for future use. Neither Vermeer not his milk maid would have known that their cream was souring because of wild yeasts and LABs but what they did know was that their cream was safe to eat and tasted damn good even if it had been sitting on the kitchen counter at room temperature for a few days.
When there was enough cream it would either be used as soured cream (crème fraîshe) or churned into butter – either by pounding or spinning until the fat molecules separated and began to clump together to form golden grains of butter. As this video from Brittany shows it could take hours to pound or churn butter. Women in Brittany had a whole litany of butter songs they would sing to keep motivated. If every household had to churn their own butter by hand today I doubt we would have so much food wastage! Cultured butter is delicious and has a far more creamier flavour than “sweet” unfermented butter. Soured butter, however, is not good for making sauces since the acid makes the sauce curdle.
Every time I read that another dairy farm is folding it makes my heart bleed. Most dairy farmers have relatively speaking small herds which feed off grass in the summer. So called “innovative’ and “cost-effective” and “efficient” farming techniques are robbing smaller farmers of an income making it impossible for them to continue rearing a herd of dairy cattle in a traditional manner. The nutritional value of butter from grass fed cows is second to none – and yet here we are being fobbed off with modern, invented vegetable shortenings devoid of natural nutrients, flavouring or colour as a safe, useful alternative. Yes, butter is more expensive – look at the effort that goes into making it but it is so much tastier and beneficial than any of the modern alternatives. When we eat vegetable based margarines not only are we failing to eat natural fat soluble vitamins we are also consuming a processed fat, artificial flavourings and artificial colourings that may be harmful. A double whamy! Use butter wisely and enjoy every bite!
Buttermilk is the whey-like liquid which appears when the fat particles separate from the cream. Buttermilk was never discarded as a waste product. It was drunk or used for baking. Soured butter, buttermilk and clabbered milk are rarely drunk today. When used for baking the micro-organisms and enzymes are killed off by the heat but they have a positive effect on transforming the food into a more nutritious meal before they are cooked. When drunk fresh it is an excellent way to replenish our microflora. All experts agree that live microorganisms are essential to our overall well being and speculate that the lack of wild microorganisms in our diet contributes to and aggravate the current blight of food related diseases from sterile guts to allergies to depressions.
I rarely make my own butter since I can’t find a good source of fresh raw cream. If you can find a good source then the modern kitchen offers excellent tools with which to make fresh butter: electricity and a food processor! Butter can be whisked up in a matter of minutes not hours. In Britain and Belgium buttermilk was once common but few use or drink it today. It is possible to find Greek yoghurt, Bulgarian yoghurt, Icelandic yoghurts, kefir – but not our own native buttermilk! What commercial buttermilk can be found is typically not buttermilk at all but clabbered milk – pasteurised milk fermented by commercial, powdered LABs. It is rarely the left-over whey from butter churning. Even the organic labels do not use wild fermentation they use lab-grown varieties which they add to their pasteurised products. Lack of use means that many, myself included initially, are confused between buttermilk and clabbered milk. Since I don’t make my own butter we don’t drink a lot of buttermilk at home but we do make a lot of clabbered milk which is ridiculously easy to make!
For a recipe see here.