Historic Bites: Butterly Delicious

“With enough butter, anything is good.” Julia Child

For decades, butter has been demonised, labelled an artery-clogger contributing to high cholesterol and obesity, and replaced with low fat spreads and margarines.

An ingredient at the very heart of western cuisine for centuries, butter is one of the purest fats available, tastes ambrosial and now, rather wonderfully, is making a rather a grand comeback.

My Grandmother is 109 years old and has lived on a diet primarily composed of meat, butter, a little bread and potatoes all her life. She is fit as a fiddle, her blood pressure’s that of an 18 year old and her outlook extremely youthful. She starts every day with one slice of toast spread, very thickly, with butter. In Norwegian there is a lovely word ‘Tandsmør’ meaning ‘Tooth Butter’ – it is the amount, when spread on bread which leaves a toothmarks.

Etymologically, the word butter comes from the Greek βούτυρον (bouturon) meaning ‘cow or ox cheese’ and during the Middle Ages butter was burned in lamps, just like oil. Butter was a very important commodity and, throughout the UK, you’ll find ‘butter markets’ a legacy from a time when cheese and butter production was essential to the economy. In Rouen, in the north of France, the cathedral’s Butter Tower was built in the 16th century as a tribute to the bishop who authorised the use of butter in lamps during lent when oil was scare.

There are several types of butter; sweet cream butter (pasteurised), salted butter, raw cream butter (unpasteurised), whey butter and cultured butter, all being made across Europe and North America, and of course, Ghee (which is a clarified butter) is used in Indian and eastern cooking, the removal of the milk solids, giving it the ability to keep in hot climates, and it’s more stable at higher cooking temperatures. Classic unsalted butter, or ‘sweet cream butter’, which was first made on a large scale, in the 19th century once pasteurisation allowed for extended longevity before fermentation, but there are some wonderful artisan producers making cultured and whey butters in this country, some of whom I’ll list below.

French butter is regarded as some of the world’s best, but it was also France which first gave us margarine, after a competition was launched by Napoleon III calling for somebody to invent a replacement for butter to feed the army and the poorer population . Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès created a product, in 1869, which he called Oleomargarine, made from beef tallow, salt, sodium sulphate and a small amount of cream, amongst others things – these were actually rather nutritious in their various parts…and from this monstrosity (vis the USA who had discovered that they could replace beef tallow with hydrogenated vegetable oil) eventually came the plasticised monstrosity we know today as margarine.

So, historically, the majority of butter would have been ‘cultured’ which is fermented to some degree and gives a delicious, individual flavour. This also allowed cream from several days’ milking to be used at once, by which time earlier milk would have fermented slightly. Also, butter would have been heavily salted to help preserve it in the days before refrigeration. Butter would also be regularly ‘washed’ and re-salted to keep it fresh. The British were well known in the medieval period for their love of butter on vegetables, something which I’m rather keen on today, or vegetables with their butter as is more often the case at my table.

Sourcing British Butter

Fenn Farm Dairy: Bungay Raw Cultured Butter from Suffolk. A real treat, certainly one to savour. Simply spread on fresh sourdough and enjoy.

Netherend Farm: Organic and Non-Organic butter, from Gloucestershire. As seen on many a celebrity table, made in the Severn Vale, salted and unsalted – the perfect cook’s butter.

Quicke’s : Whey Butter – a delicious and rare heritage recipe recognised by the Slow Food movement as one of the UK’s ‘Forgotten Foods’. Made in Devon. Melt over seasonal asparagus.

Hook and Son: Raw butter from East Sussex. Excellent all purpose butter, use to fry mushrooms with fresh parsley and black pepper for a classic English breakfast.

Cotswold Butter: Made in Worcestershire, a classic salted English butter with sea salt. Perfect for those toasted crumpets.


In search of breakfast…

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Allegedly the most important meal of the day; and I am inclined to agree. Until I eat breakfast I just can’t concentrate properly – I have read a great deal on breakfast, researched ‘breakfast’ throughout the world, looked in to history it it – and became rather fascinated about it’s changing role in our society.

Breakfast literally means ‘breaking the fast’ – and was only placed at the beginning of the day, as a specific meal, when the fashion for dining changed from one main meal of the day (and a lighter supper) to three meals a day in the 16th century. It is said that the Tudors invented breakfast. Although their breakfast, and indeed breakfasts up until the mid twentieth century were far more robust than today’s muesli and Nutella toast.

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I think the Edwardian breakfast is probably the King; several courses, served buffet style in large houses, comprising porridge, kippers, ‘the full English’ and the odd kidney (of which I am not very fond). The arrival of cereals in the later 19th century brought about the quicker almost ‘grab and go’ breakfast, which is sadly where we generally are today.

Recently, there has been so much contrasting information relating to the healthiness of the ‘Full English’ –  currently, saturated fats are good for us, twenty years ago they were bad….what is the truth? There are now the paleo devotees who preach about piles bacon of runny eggs, the health brigade with their chia, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free choices and the more usual toast and marmalade lovers who just want ‘something light’.

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At home, we enjoy rather varied breakfasts – dependant of course on time and current food ‘fad’. Usually it will involve eggs and wholemeal bread, sometimes bacon and occasionally something exotic like sweet potato rosti and avocado. If we’re feeling indulgent the croissants come out.

One of the easiest Autumn breakfasts is without a doubt, Porridge, made with oatmeal and served with a good glug of double cream and either maple syrup or fruit compote (blackberry being a particular favourite). On the weekend a ‘Full English’ is non-negotiable; buckets of tea both days complete the line-up.

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I am one of those strange people of actively look forward to the breakfast at hotels, I’ll often sneak a look at their menu and pre-plan; hotel breakfasts can take you right

through the day without need for lunch of carefully planned – I devote hours searching the local farm shops for the ‘ultimate’ bacon and am totally repulsed by the supermarket offerings with their seepage of white gunk. Eggs have to be free-range, preferably organic (from our chickens if we can find where they lay them) and toasted sourdough or heavy stone-ground wholemeal has to be smothered in salted butter and a little marmalade. Beans, I can leave but mushrooms are usually lurking somewhere on the plate, as is black pudding. In Cornwall we enjoyed hog’s pudding which is a white sausage and often far more palatable than than the red. In Scotland, Lorne sausage squares and a slice of Haggis is included. The Irish breakfast with its potato cakes and soft soda bread is totally yum. Of course, in Wales we have our own full breakfast addition – Lavabread. This seaweed is well cooked, and either served as is or made into little cakes and fried to bacon fat; do not be put off by it’s shoreline credentials – just try it and you will be surprised.

Apparently the healthiest breakfast in the world is from Iceland and comprises Oatmeal, Skyr (a delicious Icelandic yoghurt which gives the Greeks a run for their money), dark rye breads, cheeses and meals. I’d be quite happy to indulge! So this Autumn why not experiment a little – whether adding a twist to the usual pre-school offering or going all out on the weekend, breakfasts is well worth the effort.

 

 


Offally Good for the Autumn

I think, on this cold and damp autumn day, that I should spend a few minutes extolling the virtues of offal. Once very much on the British menu it became a no go area due to health scares and the increasing availability of cheap prime cuts, from intensively farmed animals. Now there is a little bit of a revival with gastro-pubs and on-trend restaurants offering an ever more offal based menu.

I believe that you should choose the best pasture raised or/and organic meat possible, there is a wonderful density to proper meat; almost as if its very molecular structure is more solid than its over-farmed, overbred counterparts. But, yes, it is expensive, however it doesn’t need to be so when you consider offal. Admittedly I am not a kidney fan but am happy to cook with pretty much any other part, sweetbreads are a particular favourite along with liver, heart and head (although not sure that’s strictly offal).

I, for one, would indubitably  prefer to eat offal from a good source rather than chance fillet from a bad. It is also ‘offally’ good for you, packed with iron and minerals in which many of us are depleted. Telling children to “Eat up your liver” is rarely heard today in our low-fat, diabetic, obese society and it is a shame. You can always hide liver in faggots or cottage pie, fresh liver doesn’t taste too strong and lamb’s liver is naturally much milder than Pig’s.  Sweetbreads are delicious floured and fried and no, they aren’t anything to do with a Lamb’s genitalia as many think, they are in fact  the thymus gland, located in the neck, or the pancreas. Heart benefits from stuffing and slow cooking and tastes dense and meaty, it was very much favoured during my grandmother’s childhood when the First World War, followed by the depression,  made meat relatively hard to come by and heart was considered a treat.

Last week, as Autumn drove its claws into the country properly for the first time I made a simple liver and bacon dish with a kale colcannon mash and a port gravy. The liver was lamb and very fresh. Do not be put off by the leathery  liver offered by your primary school – which was a world away from the pink, juicy and smooth textured liver from a fresh Lamb. I use proper dry cured smoked bacon, thickly cut and pan fried until crisp and glistening with fat. Set aside to keep warm – in goes the liver, lightly coated in seasoned flour; it takes minutes – no more that two per side, it should rest as steak but not for too long for then it takes on the leathery quality all too familiar to us seventies and eighties children. I deglaze the pan with a little port, add a spoonful of flour to make a paste, throw in some caramelised red onions (first cooked very slowly in a generous amount of butter), whisk in my homemade lamb stock, then a dash of gravy browning and finally some seasoning. Bubble for a few minutes over a low heat. My colcannon is made with local white potatoes, double cream and some sautéed Kale which is just in season. Kale is considered a superfood and it’s irony taste can be overwhelming for some, however, alongside the liver it works splendidly. Serve the colcannon in generous dollops topped with a spoon of salted butter to melt in. The liver should be meltingly yielding, the bacon crisp and the gravy rich. Perfect for a cold October night.