Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Better Butter and French Spinach.

I had no idea that, in the past, there was so much variety in English regional butters, until I read the following piece in Essays on The Management of the Dairy, (1816) by Josiah Twamley.

“Some counties or districts are particularly celebrated for the excellent quality of their butter. The Epping butter is most highly esteemed in London and its neighbourhood; great part of it is made from cows, which feed during the summer months, in Epping Forest, where the leaves and shrubby plants are understood greatly to contribute to its superior flavour. The remainder of what is called Epping butter, is made in the county of Essex, in which the Forest is situated: it is not distinguishable, in appearance, from the genuine Epping butter, both sorts being made up for market in long rolls, weighing a pound each. In Somersetshire, butter is made little inferior to the Epping butter; it is brought to market in dishes, containing half a pound each ; but, if a little salt be not previously rubbed round the inside of the dish, it will be difficult to work the butter, so as to make it look handsome.
The Cambridgeshire salt butter is also held in the highest esteem, and is made nearly in the same manner as the Epping butter: by washing it, and working the salt out of it, the London cheesemongers often sell it at a high price for fresh butter. The Suffolk and Yorkshire butter, is little inferior to that made in Cambridgeshire, for which it is often sold in London. No individuals, perhaps, make more butter from their cows than the Yorkshire farmers do; this is chiefly to be ascribed to the very great care they take of their cows during whiter; as at that season they house them all, feed them well, and never suffer them to go out, except to water, unless the weather be very serene. And when their cows calve, they give them comfortable malt mashes, for two or three days after.
The butter manufactured in the upper vale of Gloucester, is made up in half pound packs or prints, packed up in square baskets, in a manner so singularly neat, as to merit description.
The baskets are invariably of a long cubical form, about eighteen inches by twenty-four within, and about ten inches deep, with a bow handle across the middle, and with two lids hingeing upon a cross piece under the bow. A basket of this size holds twelve pints, four by three, in one layer: when the butter is firm, three layers, or eighteen pounds, are put in each basket; when soft, two layers, or twelve pounds. Sometimes baskets are made of a larger size, measuring eighteen by twenty-three inches within, carrying twenty half pounds in each row, or thirty pounds in each row. The basket is put into a kind of wallet, at the opposite end of which there is generally a smaller basket or other counterpoise; which being tightly strapped to the saddle (judiciously made for this purpose), with the heavy end on the off-side of the horse, the dairymaid mounts, and with her own weight preserves the balance. The basket being lashed on in such a manner as to ride perfectly level, the butter is preserved from being bruised.
In summer, the butter is constantly parked in green leaves, generally in those of the garden orache (the atriplex hortemis of Linnaeus), provincially called "butter leaves." This vegetable is annually sown in the garden for the purpose of enveloping the butter: its leaves are sufficiently large, of a tine texture, and a delicate pale-green colour. For want of these, vine leaves, and those of kidney beans, &c. are used.
In packing a butter-basket, the bottom is bedded with a thick cloth, folded two or three times. On this is spread a thin gauze like cloth, which has been dipped in cold water, and on this are placed the prints of butter, with a large leaf beneath, and a smaller one upon the centre of each. The lowermost row being adjusted, a fold of cloth is spread over it; and another row or layer is deposited in a similar manner. At market the cloth is removed, and the prints, partially covered with leaves, are shewn in all their neatness. The leaves are useful, as well as pleasing to the eye; and serve as guards to the prints. The butter is both put into the basket, as well as taken thence, without being touched, or the prints disfigured.”

I love the ideas of leaf-wrapped and basketed butter. I hope there is a revival in artisanal butter-production going on in the Old Country.

I am particularly intrigued by the ‘butter leaves’ mentioned. The Atriplex genus is also commonly known as saltbush. Atriplex hortemis of today’s story goes by many names: orach,  arrach, Garden Orache, Red Orach, Mountain Spinach, and French Spinach. It has been enjoyed as a human food since ancient times, and according to a mid-nineteenth century gardening manual, has been cultivated since the early sixteenth century.

Orache, or French Spinach. The orache, or French spinach, A triplex hortensis L., is a chenopodiaceous polygamous annual, growing to the height of three feet or four feet, a native of Tartary, and in cultivation as a spinach plant from the beginning of the sixteenth century. The leaves are used as in the common spinach, to mix with those of sorrel, and sometimes also, the tender points of the shoots. There are three varieties, the white, syn. pale green-leaved, the preen-leaved, and the dark red-leaved. An ounce of seed will sow a drill of one hundred feet in length; and it comes up in ten days or a fortnight. A dozen or two of plants placed two feet apart every way, in rich soil, in an open situation, kept moderately moist, will afford gatherings two or three times a week during the whole summer. The leaves ought to be taken while they are tender, and the blossoms pinched off as fast as they appear. The earliest crop may be sown in February, and for succession another sowing may be made in June. One plant will afford abundance of seed, which will keep two years.
The horticulturist; or, An attempt to teach the science and practice of the culture and management of the kitchen, fruit, and forcing garden to those who have had no previous knowledge or practice in these departments of gardening (1849) by John Claudius Loudon.

In spite of its long history as a human food, and its apparent ubiquity in the wild in Britain and Europe, it was quite difficult to find a recipe specifying orach. I guess this is because it is usually cooked in the same way as ordinary spinach. When I did find a recipe, it was in an American cookery book:
French Spinach.
Having picked them from the stalks, wash the leaves carefully in to two or three cold waters till they are quite free from grit. Put the spinach into a saucepan of hot water, in which a very small portion of salt has been boiled. There must be sufficient water to allow the spinach to float. Stir it frequently, that all the leaves may be equally done. Let it boil for a quarter of an hour. Then take it out, lay it in a sieve, and drain it well; pressing it thoroughly with your hands. Next chop it as fine as possible. For a large dish of spinach, put two ounces of butter into a stew-pan; dredge in a tablespoonful of flour and four or five table-spoonfuls of rich cream mixed with a teaspoonful of powdered loaf-sugar. Mix all well, and when they have come to a boil, add, gradually, the spinach. Stew it about ten minutes (stirring it frequently) till the superfluous mixture is all absorbed. Then serve it up very hot, garnishing all round with leaves of puff-paste, that have been handsomely formed with a tin cutter, and are fresh from the oven.
New Receipts for Cooking (1854) by Eliza Leslie

Quotation for the Day.

I detest spinach because of its utterly amorphous character....the only good, noble and edible thing to be found in that sordid nourishment is the sand.
Salvador Dali, 'The Secret Life of Salvador Dali' (1942)


Anonymous said...

I guess it makes sense that regional butters would exist; it's a form of terroir. If it works for wine, how much more for butter, which has fat molecules to carry the flavor?

I wonder what abominable form of spinach Dali was offered that he disliked it so much. Spinach is delicious!

Paddy Waller said...

LOve the butter descriptions and the French Spinach sounds great. Here in Spain there are loads of great recipes with spinach.

aruvqan said...

I adore the description of the baskets of butter, and the dairy maid riding to market. From my own messing around with dairy fun, it takes about 10 quarts of milk to make a pound of cheese [well, the cream separated from that much] and then the milk can go to making between 1.5 and 2 pounds of cheese. I wonder if the same farmstead that produced the butter also will sell the cheese [in its time] or keep it to eat.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi aruvqan: I think large manor houses would make and keep all their butter and cheese, but it would have been a source of income for a lot of smaller households and farms.
How did your cheese taste!