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Making traditional black butter

Inquiring readers: Reader Cora Harrison recently placed this comment on my blog: “In one letter, Jane [Austen] spoke of serving ‘black butter’ with wigeon and that she thought the butter was bad … Poor Jane, I thought. However, in reading a book called The Feast of Christmas I discovered that black butter was not butter at all, but what I would call a fruit cheese, made from equal quantities of apples, blackcurrants or blackberries and less sugar, and then boiled until it sets – and of course, the colour would be black!”

Her comment so intrigued me, that I decided to look up the topic. Jane wrote to her sister on December 27, 1808:

The first pot [of black butter] was opened when Frank and Mary were here, and proved not at all what it ought to be; it was neither solid nor entirely sweet, and on seeing it Eliza remembered that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made, you know, when we were absent. Such being the event of the first pot, I would not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy; and though not what it ought to be, part of it was very good.”

The recipe for making black butter, or apple butter as it is commonly known today, harkens back to medieval times. After the winter crop was picked, the preserve was made in huge quantities. In the 18th century, twenty percent of Jersey’s arable land was made up of orchards, and the tradition of producing ‘black butter’ or ‘Le Niere Buerre’ became an annual social  and festive occasion.  Jersey black butter was made from cider apples that were slowly boiled over a fire. Women would peel hundreds of pounds of apples, while the men and children would gather enough wood to keep the fire going for almost two days. After the cider was ‘reduced’ by half, apples, sugar, lemon, liquorice and spices were added. The Jersey tradition of making black butter included singing, dancing, and storytelling all through the night and until early morning. Jersey Island black butter is characterized by the addition of liquorice, which made the preserve quite dark. – RecipeZaar & BBC Jersey Black Butter.

According to Food Legends, black butter “contains no butter, the butter in the name being like the cheese in lemon cheese, more a description of the consistency and application of the product than anything else; and second, it is not really black, indeed a great deal of effort goes into avoiding the burning that would change the dark brown mass to black.” The following is likely Jane Austen’s recipe for Black Butter. Traditionally, the preserve is spread on bread, or it can be eaten by itself:

    Take 4 pounds of full ripe apples, and peel and core them. Meanwhile put into a pan 2 pints of sweet cider, and boil until it reduces by half. Put the apples, chopped small, to the cider. Cook slowly stirring frequently, until the fruit is tender, as you can crush beneath the back of a spoon. Then work the apple through a sieve, and return to the pan adding 1lb beaten (granulated) sugar and spices as following, 1 teaspoon clove well ground, 2 teaspoons cinnamon well ground, 1 saltspoon allspice well ground. Cook over low fire for about ¾ hour, stirring until mixture thickens and turns a rich brown. Pour the butter into into small clean jars, and cover with clarified butter when cold. Seal and keep for three months before using. By this time the butter will have turned almost black, and have a most delicious flavour. – Copyright Maria Hubert von Staufer March 1995

Black butter on bread

This recipe, which Cora must have at first thought Jane Austen was referring to, is a black butter that is generally served with fish, such as skate or salmon:

Black Butter: Put into a frying pan the necessary amount of butter, and cook it until it has a brown color and begins to smoke. At this moment add a large pinch of concassed parsley leaves and spread it immediately over the object to be treated. – Chest of Books

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