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In years gone by, Jersey’s traditional womenfolk would huddle together for days in big farmhouse kitchens, stirring big bubbling brew-pots. With sharpened knives, they’d peel hundreds of pounds of apples whilst the men and children collected enough wood to keep the fire going. Cooking continued all night and well into the next day, to create enough black butter using gallons of boiled cider, hundreds of peeled apples and several sacks of sugar, lemons and spices, for the entire community.
Today, centuries on, Jersey’s mouth-watering black butter is still made collectively in communities Island-wide. Visitors can witness the making of this traditional lip-licking concoction at National Trust property The Elms: a handsome 18th century farmhouse, situated at the top of St Peter’s Valley, which was gifted to the Trust by Mr Nicolle Jean Perrée in 1975 and has been used as its headquarters since 1978. The property has a wealth of architectural detail that provides a fascinating insight into Jersey’s agricultural heritage, plus a beautiful mature garden together with an orchard of abundant fruits and berries. Each year across a whole weekend in October, the farmhouse is given over to the making of black butter, starting with the delivery of over 500kg of apples on Thursday afternoon. Dozens of willing hands then arrive to peel the fruit amidst much chatter, laughter and singing to local Jersey folk music. On the Friday morning, the fire is lit before vast quantities of cider-apple juice is poured into a large cauldron. Once the pot is placed over the fire, all the peeled apples are added with the women taking turns to ladle the mixture with a five-foot-long paddle (rabat). A few hours later, the spices and licorice are added and continuously stirred to prevent burning. Eventually, quite late on Saturday morning, once the black butter has significantly reduced, the cauldron is removed from the fire. At this time, the kitchen becomes a hive of activity as the mixture is divided into several hundred pots. These are then covered and left to cool before being labelled. As Saturday afternoon draws to a close, the community celebrate the batch of Black Butter in countryside festival style with a farmer’s market, pumpkin carving and more local music.
Black Butter is an apple spread, nobody knows for sure when it was invented, but there are recipes that can be traced back to the 14th Century. During the 17th Century twenty percent of Jersey’s arable land was made up of orchards, which were used mainly for the cider production. In generations past, almost each farm would produce their own Black Butter and store it to sweeten the long winter. Neighbours would gather to join in the stirring, working in relays and merrymaking as they went. But where did the name Black Butter come from as it is not a dairy product? Nobody really has the answer: though with a semi fluid consistency it is often eaten on bread like a spread. It is also served as an accompaniment to white meats, and each part of the Island - if not from one parish to another - had a slightly different recipe. Today this farmhouse delicacy remains a perfect example of the age-old rural culture of the Island and is well supported by Jersey’s top flight chefs on Michelin-starred menus to help keep the tradition alive.
Although unique to Jersey, there is a similar spread in Brittany called “le beurre du pauvre” (the butter of the poor) and a style of “apple butter” prepared in parts of North America. Both of these are cooked for a shorter period of time and spiced differently and are prepared without the original spirit, the yarns, music and tales of the black butter nights of Jersey. For black butter is much, much more than a recipe, it is a glorious taste of the past, and a wonderful survivor of Jersey’s medieval heritage. Other batches of black butter are made by the Trinity Battle of Flowers, Jersey Young Farmers and local company La Mare Vineyards with volunteers recruited each year for the many peelers, stirrers and fillers required to keep ‘Lé Nier Beurre’ alive.
150g Prunes (stoned)
227g Black Butter (1 jar)
2tsp Bicarbonate of soda
200g Soft dark brown sugar
100g Salted butter
270g Self raising flour (sifted)
4Medium size eggs lightly beaten
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