Saturday, 4 June 2016

Food and Country Life

There was a great stir in the milk-house just after breakfast.  The churn revolved as usual, but the butter would not come.  Whenever this happened the dairy was paralyzed.   Squish, squash, echoed the milk in the great cylinder, but never arose the sound they waited for.
(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles)

I spent most of my childhood in Devon and for four years lived in a village in the North Devon countryside.  Whilst I love my city life now, and would be reluctant to ever leave it, I’m very thankful for my country upbringing; the freedom; the proximity to the natural world; local rural customs (the annual horticultural show and lamb roast); the way agricultural practices mark out the year – lambing, sheep-shearing, sowing, harvesting, swaling (the controlled annual burning of gorse and scrub on moorland to allow new grass to grow and thus provide grazing for livestock); and of course – the food.  Our village had its own bakery which churned out loaves and other baked items day in day out.  You could go to the bakery and buy bread there, or wait to buy it from the baker’s van on his weekly run.  Then there were the village and church events where there would always be a veritable spread: Devon splits; scones, jam and cream; sandwiches; home-made jams and cakes.  Perhaps this is where my love-affair with food and cooking began!

My country upbringing may have also contributed to my love of Thomas Hardy’s novels.  Whilst Hardy’s books are set in Dorset, not Devon, and precede my country existence by around a century, there is still something familiar about the world they evoke.  At the same time it was certainly more than the country settings that grabbed me.  Having seen John Schlesinger’s film of Far from the Madding Crowd on TV, I was hooked by the story of the wilful Bathsheba Everdene and her relationships with her three suitors of varying likeability.  Turning my back on anything light and frothy – I was distinctly unimpressed by the happy ending of the first Hardy I read, Under the Greenwood Tree - I sought tragedy and despair.  Far from the Madding Crowd was swiftly followed by Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Jude the Obscure and my favourite - in terms of gut-wrenching painfulness - The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Hardy’s characters – their mistakes and mishaps, and the bad luck they encounter - and the relentless cruelty of the Godless universe they inhabit had me enthralled.

With their rural and agricultural settings, it is probably no surprise that food features so frequently in Hardy’s novels.  Many of his characters are closely involved with the production of food, either by working the land or tending animals, or by turning the raw products into edible foodstuffs.
That is certainly the case with the protagonist of what is probably Hardy’s best-known novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (first published 1892). After her seduction by the villainous Alec D’Urberville, Tess returns to her home village, Marlott and, having given birth to her son, Sorrow, works in the corn-fields binding into sheaves the corn cut down by the reaping machine.  Later on, after she has been rejected by her new husband, Angel Clare, following his discovery of her status as a fallen woman, Tess takes work harvesting swedes at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, its name suggesting the barrenness of the land and the deathly nature of the work.  The fact that Tess arrives there in winter exacerbates the misery of the work which suitably reflects her desolate emotional and mental state.

But between these two jobs, Tess works in a far more pleasing environment: as a dairy-maid at Talbothays farm.  Tess arrives there following Sorrow’s death in a section of the novel called ‘The Rally’, the title suggesting she is picking herself up and making a new start.  Talbothays is a place of abundance and fertility – so different from the subsequent Flintcomb Ash – a place where Tess makes new friends and begins to put her past behind her, and also the place where she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare.  

Talbothays is also a place of food.  The dairy-maids and other farm-workers all breakfast together with Dairyman Crick and his wife, creating an atmosphere of togetherness and congeniality.  And dairy products are manufactured on site after the cows have been milked.  Tess falls asleep on her first night to ‘the smell of the cheeses in the adjoining cheese-loft, and the measured dripping of whey from the wrings downstairs’ (ch. 17).  Whilst the butter’s inability ‘to come’, as recounted at the beginning of chapter 21 – see above - is a matter of great concern for all:

Dairyman Crick and his wife, the milkmaids Tess, Marian, Retty Priddle, Izz Huett, and the married ones from the cottages; also Mr Clare, Jonathan Kail, old Deborah, and the rest, stood gazing hopelessly at the churn; and the boy who kept the horse going outside put on moon-like eyes to show his sense of the situation.  Even the melancholy horse himself seemed to look in at the window in inquiring despair at each walk round.  

Mrs Crick then recalls a country saying that if ‘somebody in the house is in love’ the butter will not come.  This triggers Crick’s memory of an episode in which a young man, who was misleading a young woman, hid from her angry mother in the butter churn, and was swung round in it by her as she vented her fury on him for his mistreatment of her daughter.  This talk of love and deception upsets Tess who makes her excuses and steps outside, but is saved from having to explain herself when the butter at last decides to come:

Fortunately for [Tess] the milk in the revolving churn at that moment changed its squashing for a decided flick-flack.
‘Tis coming!’ cried Mrs Crick, and the attention of all was called off from Tess. 

Having recently read a number of posts and articles about making butter at home, I decided to give it a try.  It is incredibly simple and very satisfying.  Whilst you can do it by hand – by shaking the cream inside a sealed jam jar – a quicker and less painful method involves using either a food-mixer or a blender.


Ingredients (for 250g butter):

600ml double cream
Large jug of ice-cold water
1 teaspoon sea-salt (optional)


Pour the cream into the food-mixer or blender and leave for 1 hour to come up to room temperature.

Whip or blend the cream initially on low speed then raise to medium speed.  The cream will get gradually thicker and begin to form peaks which will increase in stiffness.

After around 5 minutes – though it may take longer – you will see clumps of butter beginning to form.  Stop the machine and strain off the buttermilk – you can use this for baking (e.g. in scones, soda bread, pancakes or muffins).

Place the butter in a clean bowl.  Pour some iced water over it and knead the butter by hand to rinse it and press out any remaining buttermilk. Pour off the water and repeat the process until the water runs clear.  This will help the butter last longer.  If you want salted butter – which will also last longer than unsalted – add a small amount of sea-salt and work it through the butter by hand.

And there you have it – your home-made butter.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good!
    But I think that Tess and Jude are more 'gut-wrenching' than The Mayor...