on hallowed ground

part two: the butter

Part one of this essay, “the cow” can be read here.

Chores are all done now. All of the animals have been released from the safety of their night time houses. Everyone watered and fed and moved to fresh pasture. Yesterdays’s electric fencing has been taken down, each reel rolled up, every foot post taken out. Today’s electric fencing has been set up, each reel rolled out, every foot post pushed in. Every creature has been visually checked to make sure all is well. All obliging beasts, big and small, have received scratches on their favourite places. It’s time to pick up that chilling bucket of milk and get to the butter making.

The first thing I do when I get into the house is pull out my milk filter and a small piece of tightly woven linen that I place between two metal disks in its centre. The milk gets poured through and into pre-chilled glass gallon jars. Depending on where the cow is in her lactation cycle, and where the calf is in its growth cycle, we could have anywhere from one gallon to three or four gallons of milk. In this story, we will be a month into Ursula’s lactation cycle, the time when her production is easing into a rhythm and abundance generously supported by the bursting clovers, alfalfa and little yellow birdsfoot trefoil in the fields around her. Two gallons is a nice number, not too much, not too little. Just right. 

After filtering the milk, I either put it in the house fridge or bring it out to the “milk fridge” in the garage. We’re still milking twice a day right now because of how much milk our cow is producing. She is a milk cow after all. Her milk far too much for one little calf and we certainly don’t want to see her develop mastitis or for her production to start dropping because there’s no demand. It will slow and ease regardless, but for now, we milk twice a day for everyone’s sake. That’s far too much milk for my kitchen fridge.

The beauty of my old battle-axe milk fridge, aside from her actual, 1950s pale pink exterior and her lovely robin’s egg blue innards, is how incredibly effective she is at getting cold and staying cold. There is nobody here to open and close the door all day long so milk that goes in stays chilled. When I don’t need this overflow fridge, it’s simply unplugged.

I load my little wagon with the gallon milk jars collected over the last 2-3 days. This morning’s milk offerings go in the fridge where it will further chill and separate into milk and cream. There are 10 one gallon jars of milk that have accumulated over the last few days. That’s about right. If there are under 10 gallons, I’m probably not going to make butter. It’s just not worth the time and effort to do it if I’m not going to get much more than six jars of butter. In that case, I will wait. But I wait knowing that I am dealing with a perishable product and sometimes, especially when we reduce our milking to once a day or we are nearing the end of our milking season, or we have skipped some milking for convenience or other reasons, I may just have to make butter with six gallons. All that work for a couple of jars of butter. Still, that thought never crosses my mind when I’m slathering it on something come winter. Over the milking season, we are making enough butter to last us a year.  This has to take into account freezer marauders who come home to visit and sneakily slip away with weird shaped duffle bags when they leave.

It’s about 0800hrs in the morning now, the only time I will be able to make butter. If I wait much longer, the heat of the day will make butter making a frustrating pursuit. 60ish degrees, that’s the temperature to churn butter. I think I used to take the temperature when I was a butter making novice, but I never do anymore. I have figured out that taking the gallons of milk I have stored in the milk fridge, walking them to the house, skimming them of their cream one by one while they sit on my cupboard in the heat of my kitchen gets them to the right temperature for churning. I prefer to go with that. 

“What temperature is the milk at?”

“Why, it’s at the temperature 10 gallons of milk jugs become when you take them out of their pink fridge, walk them into the the house, start skimming off the cream and then put that cream in the room temperature glass of the butter churn on a warm summer day. That’s what temperature.”  See why I don’t write recipes?

I use an old ladle to skim the cream from the milk. The cool temperatures of the fridge have separated cream from milk for me. All I have to do is run my ladle across the top of each jar, being careful to honour the division between the two. Each overflowing ladle of thick cream dropped into the glass butter churn with a plop.

Depending on the butterfat production of a cow, what the pastures are like, how she’s fairing, and where she is in her lactation cycle, our gallon of milk could have a few inches of cream at the top or it could be half cream. This is Ursula’s milk. Ursula doesn’t mess around. We are skimming cream to the half way mark today.

We fill the churn with cream until it’s half full. Anymore than that and we will have problems as the churning produces a frothing expansion before settling down into butter. We use the old hand crank churns because there is nothing available today that comes close to their effectiveness and their ability to make the most delicious butter. A food processor slices through the fat globules making a greasy butter. The wood paddles smacking the fat globules against the square corners of our old butter churn effectively separate the milk from the fat, leaving a silky, rich butter. It’s also faster to use a churn. Yes, your muscles may burn, but what’s so bad about that? The added bonus is that every human who has held that worn out wooden handle, churning butter from their long-gone milk cow, gets to be in your kitchen with you, working alongside if you only give them half a chance.

evidence that magic does, indeed, exist

So, we churn, and hopefully that’s a we. I enlist anyone that’s within a ten yard radius to take a turn once the churn is in motion. If I’m home alone, I put on some good music and dance a little while I’m churning. It helps. Makes better butter too, I’m sure. We can see through the glass that the cream, being sloshed about, grows exponentially as the air moves through. Everything expands. The jar is full to the top now. We keep going. Soon, the liquid starts to drop back down and little bubbles crawl up the inside of the glass. Little bubbles turn into little fat globs. Yellow balls separate from the white liquid. All the while our arms and shoulders register the demands of each stage. Some easier, some thicker and more trying. Now as we tire and the cream is about to birth the butter, ever more oomph is required with each revolution.

And then, just when I start questioning my sanity in this endeavour, those little golden spheres start joining up with the others in their milky little universe. One by one, they pile onto each other and start clumping. The wooden paddles stop in defeat. There is sorcery in our midst! The buttermilk has separated. The butter has appeared! Great mountains of glorious golden butter, like an island in a sea of buttermilk.

The kitchen tap has been running since the first appearance of the first yellow beads in my churn. The water that filled the copper pipes has all been drained. It’s the deepest, coldest water of our well that we’re in need of. While the water is reaching arctic temperatures, I pour the contents of the churn into a sieve that’s been placed over an old earthenware jug. I will keep that precious buttermilk and sour it on my cupboard. Some will go to chickens and pigs, some will be frozen for wintertime pork braising and custard making, some will be poured into the soil of my garden. It’s now bath time for the clumps of butter in the sieve.

We are now entering into the longest part of this whole process. This is the part that most butter makers will shortchange because it really does seem like one can never, truly rinse the butter until the water runs clear. I used to henna my hair back in my twenties. I remember the instructions saying “wash until the water runs clear”. I had a “henna pillow” instead. I was sure those instructions were written by someone who had never used that stuff. I think many a butter maker has that same suspicion, but I am here to tell you that if you do not work your butter until the water runs clear, your butter will still taste and look wonderful. You just better eat it in a day or two because it’s not going to last.

What I mean when I say “work your butter” is that you really got to work your butter. I have a huge enamelled metal bowl that I am running the water into. I scoop all of the filtered butter into its icy pool and start washing. The water, still running, continuously trickles in to keep everything cold. This tightens the butters, allowing me to break it up into big chunks so it’s easier to work with. Five or six clumps float on the top of the icy water. One by one, I take a clump, knead it, squeeze it, rinse it, knead it, squeeze it, rinse it under water… Again and again and again. You get the idea. Until the water really, truly, does run clear. All buttermilk is to be banished! 

Here’s where you can really start feeling sorry for yourself if you’re of that persuasion or mood. It’s long, repetitive work. Each clump of butter is squeezed and moulded by my hands. My red, frozen hands, submerged under the water. Cold combatting the warmth of my blood so that the butter doesn’t melt and fall apart. There is no working warm butter. All of this process, from the squatting to milk the cow with the little muscles of tired hands, to the carrying of the jars, to the churning of the wooden butter paddles requires our energy. It requires our stamina and determination. Parts of us mixed in with parts of Ursula who is built of the earth around us which is built of the life that once was. All of that is in this butter.

My hands add to the energy of this miraculous food. I want the messages they carry to deliver love into the food I make, not bemoan the length of the task. A lot of farm work feels thankless. A lot of mothering does, too. And so too, fathering. While, we’re at it, let’s just be real, a lot of everything that has real value is like that. Best to just be grateful we get to do these things at all instead of looking for accolades. I think that’s where the good stuff lives. An awareness of all that I have to be grateful for in this moment and my whole world shifts into rightness. These are the things that I sow and tend when the weeds of frustration and “easy" start popping up in my garden.

So, I wash. I wash the butter until the water is clear. Now it’s onto the paddles. I have three butter paddles. They’re just rectangular, wooden paddles with grooves in them. I use them to smack the butter to eject the water. If I’m making rectangular butter, the kind we’re used to seeing, I will use the paddles to shape the butter. But I prefer smooshing our butter into small, wide mouth jars, free of any wrappings that can leach. So, that’s what I’m doing. Each mound of butter gets sprinkled with salt that is then kneaded into it. I taste all along the way, nibbling on little pearls of butter to keep my spirits high.

butter kneading, rinse, repeat
smacking the water out of the butter

Spoonful by spoonful, I squish the butter into the jars. Each new addition of butter gets smeared and worked in the jar to get out any remaining water. Soon I have six or so jars of butter. It hardly seems like enough after all of that effort. But in a few days there will be six more. And then, another batch. And soon, come fall, the precious section of my deep freezer dedicated to butter will be full. I will have forgotten about the evening milking when deer flies took chunks out of my neck or the times when Ursula was in heat and was impatient with standing, kicking over the bucket or pooping on her calf’s head. Those days don’t exist when, in the middle of a dark January, I can walk a few meters through a snowstorm to retrieve the captured bounty of summer from my freezer.

With the butter made, the skimmed milk is amalgamated into buckets to be soured with pig or chicken feed. Or it’s used to make cheeses or it’s added to some of the milk I have left with the cream to make yoghurts or kefir. All depends on a combination of gumption to take on the task and my tally of what I have and what I need. The jars and butter churn are washed. The wood paddles rinsed off. The surfaces of the jarred butter are each stamped with a wooden heart our daughter carved for us years ago. A piece of brown paper ripped and placed on top. I screw on the lids and put a piece of tape on the top of each jar. On the tape I write a message to our future selves. Just a quick note reporting something that we are seeing or having troubles with or appreciative of. When winter comes, I will pull out a jar of butter and look at the top date and read the little notes like: “No rain for 6 days, everything crunchy” or “Paco gone for 10 days, came home fatter than ever” or “apple trees thick with pink blossoms and drunken bumblebees”, “wild lightening storm, fire in the shed” or “hot husband carrying tractor tire up the drive”. You get the idea. Just little memories that would fade into the ether if not for the butter telegraph in the cold dark months of winter. Sunbeams reaching into the darkest of corners.

Store bought, organic “grass fed” butter vs. solely grass fed butter. If a cow eats some hay, they’re “grass fed” according to the commercial industry

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p.s. The second best thing I make with summer cream - nutrient dense summer ice cream. We’ll just have to wait until summer to get to that.