Butter:   A Regency Health Food?

A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:

All you health-conscious readers are probably shuddering at the very idea, but in actual fact, butter did help to protect the health of many people in England during the Regency, just as it had for several centuries before the nineteenth. At different times in its history, butter alternated between being considered a luxury food or fit only to be consumed the very poor. By the Regency it was a relatively expensive commodity, but it was widely available. And, it was no longer restricted to any particular social class by custom, though there was some restriction based on its cost. Regardless of social status, butter protected many of the leftover meals from the tables of all classes, when used correctly.

How butter churned it way through history …

Butter is one of the oldest known dairy products, beside milk itself. Evidence suggests butter in some form was in use on the Indian sub-continent as early as 2000 B.C. Until the advent of refrigeration, butter was not commonly used in the southern European countries which bordered the Mediterranean Sea. Those areas did not have the necessary pasturage to support large herds of cattle and the warmer climates were not conducive to keeping butter fresh for any length of time. The peoples of these southern countries typically preferred olive oil. However, butter was very popular in the cooler climes of northern Europe, including the British Isles. From the Middle Ages into the early decades of the seventeenth century, in many places in England, Scotland and Ireland, the preferred butter was made from the milk of sheep, rather than that of cows, since the milk was sweeter and much richer in butter-fat than cow’s milk. For much of the Middle Ages, butter was considered to be a food fit only for the poor. By the seventeenth century, however, the wealthy and aristocratic of England were taking a greater interest in butter. Some scholars speculate this was because the constantly improved breeding practices and grazing lands were producing larger, healthier cows which were giving richer, sweeter milk with a much higher butter-fat content. As the quality of the milk improved over the course of that century, milk gradually appeared more and more often on the tables of the upper classes. Some food historians have described the eighteenth century as the golden age of cream and butter in the cookery of England. Butter’s popularity continued into the early nineteenth century, right through the Regency. And, though most of the butter to be found on Regency tables was made from cow’s milk, such was not always the case in the more rural areas of the Scottish Highlands. The milk of both goats and sheep were the more usual sources of butter in those areas well into the nineteenth century.

The earliest butters were made by agitating the whole raw milk, just as it was taken from the cow, or goat or sheep. Over time, people learned that they could make better butter if they waited for the cream to rise from the whole milk and agitated only the cream. By the eighteenth century, most butter was churned in the tall, cylindrical churns which most of us now consider the traditional butter churn shape. The body of the churn might have been made of stoneware, or of hardwood staves, in much the same way a barrel was made. The churn dash, the part of the churn that agitates the cream, was always made of wood. Churns of both wood and stoneware were in use right through the Regency. The size of the churn depended on how much butter was typically produced. A country farmhouse might have had a churn which held only a couple of gallons of milk or cream, used only to make butter for the family. But the churns used by dairy farmers might be much larger, holding many gallons of milk or cream which was churned to make butter for sale. The smaller churns could be of stoneware or wood, but the larger, commercial butter churns were always made of wood. The one critical factor, regardless of the size of the churn or the material of which it was made was its cleanliness. Only a scrupulously clean churn would produce the best quality butter. It was also in the butter-maker’s best interest to keep their churns clean, as butter formed more quickly in clean churns, thus reducing labor.

Essentially, the process of churning constantly agitates the cream, thus breaking down the outer membranes of the fat globules in the cream so that they all clump together. To get the best results, the milk or cream which goes into the churn should be at about 60º Fahrenheit. If the liquid is too cold, the butter will never form. And, if it is too warm, the fat globules will not be firm enough to cling together as they are released from their enclosing membranes. Churning any but the smallest amount of butter is very hard work as the churn dash must be rigorously and constantly agitated inside the churn in order to release the butter fat. But churning was only the beginning of the process. Once the butter had formed into a soft solid of many conjoined globules it was removed from the churn. This mass of newly-formed butter was rinsed under cold water, to remove any buttermilk residue and to firm up the butter. The slightly chilled lump of new butter was then gently kneaded to work even more liquid out and meld the fat globules into a smoother, denser mass. A pair of butter beaters, also known as "scotch hands" were used to work the butter at this stage. Scotch hands looked like a pair of large wooden spatulas, with one smooth side and one fluted side. During Regency times, even more so than today, it was critical to work as much liquid as possible out of butter, to increase its keeping properties. The butter-maker would labor over this part of the process almost as hard as they had worked to churn the butter, in order to ensure the finished product could be kept as long as possible without spoiling.

The next step in the butter-making process depended on when and how the butter was to be used. Salt would be added to the butter after the kneading process, when all the liquid had been expelled and the butter mass was firm but malleable. Salt was added to butter partly for flavor, but primarily to increase its keeping time. Butter which was to be stored for some time, or butter which would have to be shipped some distance to market was usually well salted. However, butter which would be consumed within a few days of when it was made would only be very lightly salted. Many people preferred the flavor of sweet cream butter, that is, butter made from cream, not milk, and very lightly salted. But such butter would spoil within a few days, unless it could be kept cooler than room temperature. Those with the luxury of an ice house in the Regency would have been able to keep sweet cream butter fresh-tasting for more than a few days. But those without some form of refrigeration would have been able to enjoy the exquisite taste of sweet cream butter for only a day or two after butter-making. Any attempt to keep it longer than that, even in the cooler climate of England, would have resulted in rancid butter. A farm wife might separate out a small portion of her butter production each time to be very lightly salted, for immediate consumption, while well salting the rest for longer term storage. A dairy farm might do the same, selling its sweet cream butter to those in the immediate vicinity of the diary farm as soon as it was produced. The remainder of the butter production would be salted for storage or in preparation for shipping to more distant markets. During the Middle Ages, butter frequently had a variety of herbs kneaded in along with the salt. Though this was less common by the Regency, there were still a few butter-makers who did supply a small selection of herbed butters. Any combination of parsley, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, garlic, leeks and a wide selection of other herbs might be blended into butter along with the salt. Butter blended with cinnamon and a little sugar was very popular with soldiers on both sides during the American Revolutionary War, not only because it was tasty, but because it kept well in their packs. By the Regency, most herbed butters were specialty creations of the more creative and sophisticated cooks and chefs of the time. But there is no doubt that some country farm wives carried on age-old traditions of herbed butter making in their kitchens.

Once the butter was finished, the next step was packaging. There were no boxes of butter sticks during the Regency any more than there had been in all the centuries before. Sweet cream, that is, lightly salted butter, was usually shaped into small balls which were typically stored in earthen or stoneware vessels with tight-fitting lids. Salted butter was pressed into a well-glazed stone or earthenware crock with a layer of salt laid over it to seal it. In cases were there was not enough butter to fill the crock, the butter placed in the crock would still be sealed with salt, and when more butter was made it would be pressed into the crock over that earlier layer of salt and sealed with another layer of salt. Smaller butter producers, such as farm wives, might need several butter-making sessions to completely fill a crock with salted butter, each new layer of butter sealed with salt. Large dairy farms often packaged their butter output in wooden casks, layering with salt between each batch of finished butter until the cask was full. Herbed butters would also have been packed into crocks, though usually crocks smaller than those used to pack regular butter. However, in most cases, they would also have been sealed with a layer of salt.

It must be noted that not all butter was made from cream. The very best butter was made from the first skimming of cream from whole milk which had been left to stand in large shallow dishes in the diary or the farmhouse kitchen. But this same milk would be skimmed again, several hours later. This second skimming was also churned to produce a butter of an inferior quality, known as after-butter. The worst quality butter was made from whey produced in the making of cheese. This third type of butter was known as whey-butter. On many farms, the butter produced from the first skimming of the milk was made for sale, while the after-butter was retained for home consumption. From medieval times, it was after-butter which was more likely to be blended with herbs, which masked its less pleasant natural flavor. After-butter was also more heavily salted, because it would not keep as well as first-skimming butter. Whey-butter was seldom used for eating. Its most common use was as a finishing touch to a wheel of cheese ready for sale. The cheese wheel was brushed then rubbed with whey-butter to shine it up a bit and give it an attractive yellow coating. Whey-butter was also often used as a cooking fat, though poor people would use it as the more affluent used the better grades of butter.

The color of butter is not uniform and has received assistance and manipulation from man since medieval times. The very best butter, made from the first skimming of summer cream, when the cows had been eating fresh green grass shoots, was a naturally rich golden color. But winter butter, even made from the first skimming of cream, was quite pale, almost white. And neither after-butter nor whey-butter had much color, regardless of the time of year they were made. Thus, it had become the custom to color these pale butters with the juice pressed from marigold petals or carrots. Marigold petal juice seems to have been used to color the better grades of butter, while carrot juice was typically used for the lesser grades. The more unscrupulous butter-sellers would try to sell after-butter or whey-butter as top-grade butter not only by coloring it. To dupe their unsuspecting customers, they would put a large slice of fresh sweet butter in the center of the surface of a crock or cask of butter, offering it as a taste sample, the implication being the entire container was of that same quality.

The larger outdoor markets around Britain typically had a separate, covered butter-market area, where butter and other dairy produce were protected from the elements on market day. Most large cities had diary shops where butter and other milk products could be purchased. And butter was also sold at many chandlers’ shops. The majority of the butter sold in London from the end of the eighteenth century and right through the Regency came from Suffolk. However, there was also a steady supply of butter from Yorkshire, from where the butter was shipped by sea to reduce delivery times. The most expensive butter was always sweet cream butter, with the more liberally salted butter of the first skimming of cream next in price. After-butter and whey-butter were both much less expensive, except when doctored and sold by a dishonest butter seller as first-skimming butter.

And now, butter as the plastic wrap or aluminum foil of the Regency. Since the Middle Ages, many dishes were sealed by pouring melted butter over them and allowing it to set. Potted meats, stews, pottages, and even meat pies were regularly sealed with melted butter. Either clarified butter or regular melted butter might be used. Clarified butter tended to keep the contents of the dish it covered fresher for a longer time, since, with the milk solids precipitated out, it did not spoil as quickly. A stew covered with clarified butter and kept in a cool area could keep for several days. A stew covered with regular melted butter would keep for at least two or three days. In most cases, that was long enough to preserve leftovers for the next meal. This melted butter did indeed work just as plastic wrap or aluminum foil works to preserve foods today, by excluding air, which inhibits bacteria growth. Refrigerating foods also reduces the growth of bacteria, but it is much more important to keep them in an air-tight container. Cooks had known since medieval times that a dish sealed with melted butter would keep much longer than one that was not, though they did not know the real reason why. This practice had been handed down from one generation to another, for centuries, and was still in use during the Regency. But in order to properly protect a dish, the butter must cover the entire surface, up to the edge of the container, with no break. Any rupture in the membrane of butter over the surface would allow oxygen in and bacteria would begin to grow. So most cooks were very generous with the butter they poured over their leftovers and potted meats. When a leftover dish was re-heated, the butter would melt into the food, adding a bit of body and extra flavor to the meal. After-butter and whey-butter were sometimes used for this purpose, but they did not keep nearly as well as top-grade butter, and the less pleasant flavor they added did not improve the food they were used to preserve.

So now you know how butter helped keep people healthy in the Regency, by keeping bacteria from growing in their food in the days before the advent of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, Tupperware® and refrigerators. But I begin to wonder if butter might be a twenty-first century health food as well. My sister has consistently refused to give up butter, even when all the various studies came out claiming how unhealthy it was believed to be. I once asked her why she would not switch to margarine, and she said to me, "I trust cows more than chemists." While researching for this article, I came upon a post by a fellow WordPresser, Sara Petee, comparing butter and margarine. After reading that article, I really wonder whether butter may not still be better for us than all those overly-engineered yellow spreads on the grocery store shelves. My sister might be right, cows may well be more trustworthy. Certainly, butter is a natural product which protected the food of our ancestors from the predation of bacteria which might have sickened or even killed them. And butter was used in many dishes during the Regency, just as it had been during most of the eighteenth century. For those with a sedentary life-style, over-indulgence in butter- and cream-laden foods could eventually result in gout. But for most reasonably active people, the consumption of butter and cream was not a health threat, and in fact, butter actually helped to keep them healthy.

© 2011 – 2013 Kathryn Kane, Kalligraph
Originally posted at The Regency Redingote
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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    1. The more I learn about margarine, the more I agree with you! Butter is an all-natural food, and eaten in moderation, It seems much more healthy to me than the yellow chemical spread.

      You may already know this, but I learned from my grandmother, who ran a farm in Iowa for nearly fifty years, that when margarine first came out, it could not be colored yellow, by law. It was sold in white blocks, along with small ampules of liquid yellow food dye that could be broken and mixed in, if the consumer chose to do so. From what my grandmother told me, that was due to the strong dairy lobby, since the farmers were afraid that the public would equate margarine, or oleo, as it was often called, with their products, which were naturally yellow. Some of the dairy farmers were afraid people would get sick eating margarine and blame them because they would not be able to tell the difference between real butter and margarine! I don’t think they needed to worry, one taste would alert anyone to what they were eating.


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