Today, December 27th …
Jane Austen did not save her delicious wit for her novels. She wrote often to her sister, Cassandra, and on this day in 1808 described an evening party at her brother’s house in Southampton, where she was living at the time.
The last hour, spent in yawning and shivering in a wide circle round the fire, was dull enough, but the tray had admirable success. The widgeon and the preserved ginger were as delicious as one could wish. But as to our black butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone. The first pot was opened when Frank and Mary were here, and proved not at all what it ought to be; it was neither solid nor entirely sweet, and on seeing it Eliza remembered that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made, you know, when we were absent. Such being the event of the first pot, I would not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy; and though not what it ought to be, part of it was very good.
The “black butter” that Jane refers to is not a sauce of butter cooked until it is burnt, but a thick, dark, spiced conserve of apples cooked in cider, with a history going back to mediaeval times. It is still a particular specialty of Jersey – where they add liquorice to make it even blacker. There is a dearth of cookbook recipes for such a homely preserve, even under its plain name of “apple butter”. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s) actually calls it “American”, reflecting its popularity in the former colony, and the ignorance of the editors in respect of its history. Like pumpkin pie, it crossed the Atlantic, and then acted as if it had been born there.
Apple Butter, American.
Fill a preserving pan with apples, peeled, quartered, and cored. Add a slight flavouring of cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. Cover with good cider, and boil slowly, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon, until the whole becomes a dark brown jam, with only juice sufficient to keep it soft and buttery. Remove it from the fire, and place in well-covered jars, and in a few weeks it will be ready for use. It makes an excellent substitute for butter, and is very wholesome for children.
Tomorrow: Any peas with that?