Stir it up: Black Butter Making

02/03/17

Jersey knows about food. You wouldn't expect any less from an island that practically invented the Jersey Royal, and where the local cows are renowned the world over for their extra-creamy milk. There's one food tradition though that hasn't changed for centuries. Black butter making.

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Every year, Jersey's heritage experts step back into rural traditions to explore real slow food, the 'black butter' cider apple conserve that takes a community a night and a day to make. If you're in Jersey in the autumn, you can watch the local delicacy being made, as it was centuries ago.

Through the swirls of toffee-apple flavoured smoke, you catch a glimpse of an enormous cauldron that could have come straight out of Macbeth, hubbling and bubbling away on the fire. 'Don't get too close' warned the chief stirrer, who looked like he could have remembered the day when all the island's black butter was made this way. We'd arrived just in time for the 'stick test', which measures whether a plate of black butter will 'stick' to the wooden spoon, a sure sign the black butter's ready for the jar.

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The stirrer held out the wooden spoon, covered with what looked like a muddy, molten dollop of dark jam. Black butter. Making the heady blend of cider apples, lemon, spices and liquorice, stirred and simmered down over two days was a common occurrence in seventeenth century Jersey when twenty percent of the island's land were orchards. Cider apples were given to workers as part of their pay, and whole communities used to come together for the autumn black butter-making, singing or storytelling during the stirring which went on for a night and a day.

These days it's an annual event at the National Trust property The Elms, bringing together the community in a slightly different way for pumpkin-carving, toffee apples, a local produce market, and live performances from local musicians. The National Trust in Jersey's chairman of the Coastline Campaign, Mike Stentiford says: 'Despite the event's labour intensity, which involves a 48-hour non-stop peeling, stirring and jar filling commitment by volunteers, hundreds of islanders enthusiastically offer their services each October to the National Trust for Jersey during their community-inspired Black Butter Weekend. Because this age old tradition is rightly regarded as an integral part of the Island's heritage, the sense of community togetherness continues to prove ever popular, with musicians and a Genuine Jersey market creating atmosphere as volunteer peelers and stirrers earnestly settle down to produce up to 300 jars of this highly prized local delicacy. The weekend proves, without doubt, that Islanders continue to respect and enjoy the old traditions of a rather special heritage.'

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