I mentioned in a previous post (‘Bunnies, ducklings, and sensible shoes’) that I volunteer with the National Trust (other heritage charities are available).
For those of you not based in the UK (and there’s an increasing number of you – I’ve had visitors to my little corner of the internet from Australia, Canada, the US, Israel, Ireland, Bermuda, Sweden and the Phillipines), the National Trust is an organisation dedicated to preserving landscapes and historic houses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And I volunteer at one of those historic houses.
Over the 4 years that I’ve been there, I’ve had a variety of roles, and it really is ridiculously good fun – but the role that is the most fun (although it’s a close-run thing) is making butter. I make butter for the National Trust! And I do it in costume!
It all started about three years ago, when our Visitor Experience manager mentioned that they were looking for ideas of things that we could do in our Great Barn – she listed a few possible ideas, including butter making.
Now, my Dad had always told a tale of making butter during the war – his granny would sit him and his brother on the floor and get them to kick a lemonade bottle* between them until the butter came. Wise woman that granny – two boys kept out of mischief for probably an hour, and butter at the end of it!!
- The lemonade bottle had cream in it. One of my lovely readers has just pointed out that I didn’t specifically mention the presence of cream in the bottle. Making butter without cream – that would have truly been magic!!
So – I knew that butter probably wasn’t difficult to make, if two small boys could do it in a lemonade bottle. But that was about all I knew. I went home and googled. And I discovered that butter making can be as simple or as difficult as you want it to be. You can literally just put it in a container and kick it around the floor (although shaking is the preferred method…) or you can get very hung up on temperatures, atmospheric conditions, the age of the cow and the type of grass it’s eating. I decided to keep it simple.
I did some experimenting – I half-filled a jam jar with some single cream and shook it while I was watching the TV. And I made butter – actual factual butter. Like some sort of magic!! But shaking a jam jar for an hour is hard work. I tried again, but this time with double cream – same jam jar, same TV. And I made butter again – wow! And with double cream it only took half an hour. A much more sensible time frame. I learnt that the bit where you’re sat in front of the TV shaking a jam jar is only half the story – you then have to work the butter, squish it and squeeze it to get the buttermilk out. I learnt about buttermilk and what you can use it for. I learnt what flippin’ hard work it would have been, back in the day.
I went back to the VE manager, and I told her that I could make butter. I made some, during a meeting – like magic.
We worked out timings, costings, we did a risk assessment. We bought a glass butter churn. Two advantages to this – people can see what’s happening, and it can go through the dishwasher afterwards. We might be talking about the 17th century, but we still have to comply with 21st century food handling regs.
We put together a demonstration to last about an hour, covering everything you could possibly need to know about making butter in the 17th century (and a lot of stuff you probably didn’t know you needed to know). We made it interactive, so you can make your own butter and then eat it. We printed instructions so people could go away and make butter at home or in their school classroom. We provided oatcakes to spread the butter on, and little paper cups for tasting the buttermilk.
We did a practice run for the staff, just to see how it would go. One lovely lady announced that it ‘tasted just like butter’. Phew!!
It’s been a couple of years now. We’ve changed a few things: got a bit slicker; started charging, with profits going directly to the property. There’s a team of us now. But it’s still magical. I’m still amazed, every time the butter comes. It doesn’t always, which is an interesting experience in front of a paying audience…
Back in the 17th century, if the butter didn’t come, they would blame the weather, or they might accuse the slightly strange middle-aged woman from the next village of being a witch (witches were particularly fond of butter, apparently). These days we know that temperature and atmospheric pressure (is there a storm brewing?) do indeed make a difference. And I always have some emergency butter in case it doesn’t work – for me it’s a slight inconvenience, for them it would have been a disaster.
But speaking as a slightly strange middle-aged woman from the next village, who is particularly fond of butter, the jury’s still out on that…
You’re not going to believe this – but still no news.
Thank you to everyone who has followed, shared and liked this blog. Keep doing it, please!!
I always reply to comments from nice people. xx