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.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Easy Entertaining.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and although there aren’t many exclusively ‘Welsh’ traditions, we do have some excellent recipes to satisfy the hungriest of guests over the Christmas period.

Feeding a party is quite a challenge, but sometimes, especially in the colder weather it’s nice to offer guests something a little more substantial that the usual mince pie and canapés. In fact, cooking a large pot of something delicious is far easier, creating less stress and allowing more integrated time with your guests.

Entertaining at Christmas shouldn’t be stressful. Make sure you have a really good cheeseboard, lots of decent bread and a generously filled pot of casserole, soup or stew. Obviously, mulled wine is essential, as is mulled cider, but a great casserole filled with slow cooked beef, game or a really good Cawl, the hearty Welsh lamb and barley stew which is served traditionally with Caws (cheese) and Bara (bread), is sure to satisfy the pickiest of guests. The beauty of many of these dishes is the simple fact that they look after themselves, require the cheapest cuts and are full of the most delicious flavours.

Beef Stew with suet dumplings, the Gascon favourite Poule au Pot or even a hearty vegan lentil and brassica stew – these are perfect for the cooler weather – they freeze well and hold well, allowing guests to dip in, at will over the course of the evening.

Entertaining shouldn’t be complicated, the company, candles and generously poured wine is the true focus of the evening. Sometimes the simplest foods prove the best, after all, we are heading for the most indulgent period in the culinary calendar so why not tuck into some family favourites – these comfort foods can be eaten without excuses – the diet doesn’t start until January, remember!


Digging for Ancestral Roots in our Cookery…..?

I think that most of us were probably taught to cook by family members; whether Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents or the more extended family. IIMG_4936 learnt a lot from my Grandmothers; though each was very different in their approach to cookery. One was very much a bake-from-scratch cook; still alive today (at 106) she taught me bread making, jam making and gravy making; she learnt all that from her mother who was born in the late 19th century. Grandma’s rubbed-in cakes and Welsh bake-stones have weathered the years and are still regularly baked in my kitchen at home. Grandma was very much a wartime wife; she embraced rationing, skinned rabbits and ‘made do and mended’.

My other Grandmother, Nan, born in 1922 and sadly no longer with us, was a classic 1950’s housewife; she enjoyed convenience, loved M & S and, as she got older, rarely cooked at all, but when I was a child she would make choux pastry Chocolate Eclairs (which I’ve always considered rather complicated) and Coconut Pyramids (from the eponymous Marguerite Patten); her Beef Stew with Dumplings was always served on a plate rather than in a bowl and the trifles which adorned the birthday table were always from a packet. However, there was something she always made from scratch and which we all found rather amusing – Porridge. At home, porridge was a thick and creamy affair, adorned with honey or syrup or sultanas, it was thick and unctuous. My Nan’s on the other hand was solid, a greying cloddy mass made with half water and half milk then surrounded by another pool of cold milk. It stood like an iceberg, its undercarriage swamped and its head lightly adorned with sugar. It tasted fine, but it looked….well ‘different’! IMG_7474

It was only after doing a bit of research and talking with my Nan that I realised why this porridge was ‘different’ – and it was all down to her ancestry. My Nan made porridge that way because she had learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother – and that lady (all the way back in the mid-19th century) was called Florence MacDonald and was born a little way outside Inverness in 1858. Having looked into the Scottish porridge tradition I discovered that it is served, very thick, in bowls and alongside is placed a communal bowl of cream. The horn spoon goes into the porridge (which is served savoury or sweet) and then dunked in the cream. The leftover porridge was then tipped into a ‘porridge draw’ and spread about so as to set firm; this

IMG_1821was carried by crofters and workers to eat during their lunch break as it travelled more easily than oatcakes which tended to crumble.

Although, it’s likely that this was how Florence cooked and served her porridge, a gentle evolution has obviously occurred – an amalgamation of two bowls into one and the result being my Nan’s ‘different’ porridge. Having discovered this I do wonder whether I should make my porridge that bit thicker and carry on the tradition….who knows how far back it goes? I’m sure if we looked about us, we could

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 find dozens of hacks and recipes which travel deep into our family history, not all of us are lucky enough to have a family recipe notebook added to and stained and use, to carry these recipes, we just have our memories and these memories should be treasured and handed down to the next generation. In a gesture towards my heritage I do always stir my porridge with a Spurtle (the traditional carved stick-like porridge stirrer) and I only stir clockwise, superstition or tradition; you decide.

 

 


Waste not, want not….

  

Two years ago, on Christmas Eve, a relative of mine was in Lidl and witnessed the staff throwing frozen Turkeys into black bags. Where were they going? she inquired. The bin, she was told. They weren’t allowed to give them away, they had to be destroyed. The staff were very upset but they were under orders. Last year was a little better but as we approach the season of overindulgence I think we should all think about what we buy and what we let rot.

We are all guilty of buying too much, advertising and the choice we are offered allows for a much more varied diet. In our parent’s and grandparent’time food was generally associated with a particular day, leftovers from the Sunday roast became bubble and squeak on Monday and soup on Tuesday. Friday was fish day, a ham was boiled on a Sunday for the week’s sandwiches. People didn’t mind ‘eating up’ the firmer slices of bread or ‘trimming up’ the cheese.

Today the most popular dish in Britain for a Monday night is Spaghetti Bolognese; fresh mince, pasta, nothing from the day before. Of course now we can’t just eat Spag Bol, we need garlic bread, coleslaw, salad….and more often than not the salad (bagged and prewashed in chemicals) is sitting in its own juice come Friday. Into the bin it goes.

  
 As a nation we have been encouraged to obey all sell by dates – when I was a child we used our noses – if something smelt ok, it probably was. Which leads me to wonder whether, now preservatives are used throughout the food industry, they mask the smell of ‘off’ food or preserve beyond the dates stamped…as humanity has survived for thousands of years without use-by dates why can we not trust our instincts now, even if companies are obliged to provide such dates. 

  
The amount of food wasted in this country is ridiculous. With celebrity chefs taking up the cause I think it’s about time to tackle this issue.  If we try and cook from scratch we are less lightly to waste, so dig out those recipes from granny, plan meals and perhaps use leftovers for packed lunches or as the basis for soups or pasta sauces; and enjoy the simple pleasure of cold cuts with chutneys and sauces. Bake your own cakes and you rely on their feel, a sponge gone a little hard? Warm it and serve with custard or make a trifle. Think outside the box – you may be surprised at what can be achieved.