HAND-MADE BUTTER IN TRUE CORNISH STYLE
Making a living from three
fields and a few cows is far
from easy, but hard work and
a cool hand ensure there is
always cream for tea on the
Cornish smallholding that
Tessa Gates visited
Golden and wholesome, the bowls of clotted cream and pats of butter fill the tiny dairy in a scene that would have been commonplace in Cornish farmhouses years ago, but today is something of a rarity.
The cream and butter is handmade in the traditional way by Barbara Lake at Priors, the 3.23ha (8-acre) smallholding she works unaided at Coads Green, near Launceston, where she lives with her chair-bound mother.
"We started making cream and butter in 1979 when the milk churn collections finished because with just eight cows, it wasnt worth us having a 60gal bulk tank. It would have been too expensive for us to make all the changes necessary," says Barbara, who was born at Priors, the youngest of four children.
"When I left school I came straight on to the farm to work; I have never done anything else," says Barbara. "Dad did a post round then and when he had his holiday, he did the milking for me and I did the post round for him."
Sadly her father died suddenly when she was barely in her twenties and Barbara has been running the farm ever since.
"Mum used to help me when she was able. Now I do it all myself, although the neighbours are good if I need a strong hand," she says.
She usually milks eight Guernseys in the old fashioned shippon where she can tie four at a time. "They give 4.5-5gal after calving," she says, adding that she has two extra cows at present, both Jerseys as she couldnt find replacement Guernseys when she wanted them last year.
"I generally house the cows at this time of year and our own hay lasts us through half the winter. We have good ground here but a late spring as it is facing north – we get plenty of grass. I cut two-and-a-half acres of hay and make about 270 of what I call ladies bales – small enough to move myself," says Barbara.
Barbaras dairy skills were learned from her mother. "When mother used to make butter, people used to pick it up and take it to Plymouth to sell," recalls Barbara. Today she makes three deliveries a week to shops in the Launceston area and does a Friday round of regular customers in the village. Other regulars call at the farm for the cream and butter which is deliciously golden at the moment but pale compared with that made from summer milk.
Skim milk from the enterprise is collected by two local farmers. "I used to feed it to my own pigs, but they are too much for me to keep now," she says.
Each morning she scalds the cream in a big bain-marie on the top of the Rayburn. "I put a bowl of cream into the pan of water and simmer it for about two hours. Some days it will curdle quicker than others and I know by experience when it is ready. I do two pans a day," says Barbara.
Cream sales peak in the summer. In winter she usually makes 40-45lbs of clotted cream a week, but sales went down by about 20lbs/week just before Christmas which means she has a bigger surplus than usual to turn into butter.
Before making butter, Barbara scrubs her hands with Vim and then rinses them well "so the butter doesnt stick. You need cool hands for this," she says.
Working with a small bowl of clotted cream, she uses an electric hand whisk to crumble it then stirs it by hand as the buttermilk starts to come out. Then she works the butter with an action similar to kneading bread, under a running tap. "When the water runs clear it is all out," explains Barbara, as she works in a dash of salt and nips off a nugget of butter to check the taste.
* Beaten by cloth
Next the butter is put onto a wooden patter which Barbara turns in her left hand as she beats the butter with a boiled cloth. "If you are mad with anyone this is a good way of getting rid of the anger," she laughs. "I keep patting it like this until all the water is out."
Each bowl of cream makes about three pats of butter. "I always sold it in half pounds, then the weights and measures man said it had to be 250g. I thought I would have to buy new scales but he was impressed with the accuracy of these," she says, pointing to the ancient balance scales, "and said just add an extra ounce. This makes it a bit over the 250g so our customers get good measure!"
After weighing out enough for one pat, she shapes it with a wooden butter hand while turning it on the patter until it forms a nice round. Then she presses the farms mark onto it with a wooden stamp.
It is not just local people who seek out Barbaras cream and butter. Food writer Henrietta Green – who included Barbara in her Food Lovers Guide to Britain – and TV chef Gary Rhodes, have travelled the long and very narrow lane to her door. Gary Rhodes even named one of her calves, calling it Coco, when he came with a film crew for a programme, but he would not go into the field with the cows.
"He said the cows were like Rottweiler dogs," chuckles Barbara. "He made a delicious chocolate flan here and tried some of our scones with jam and cream."
Other visitors she had last year were not so welcome. On a very rare day out for Barbara and her mother, burglars called, stealing the bit of change from her door step sales and her mothers engagement ring. "It seems incredible that on the one day of the year we were not here, two boys from Plymouth should break in. The police have got them, " she says.
She seems to have taken the burglary in her stride much as she has the changes in farming that threaten the existence of little farms like hers.
"I hate doing the books and the forms. I have to have a quota, even for eight cows and have to pay the man from the ministry £90 when he inspects them, the same sum as for someone with a big herd. It is forms all the time and now I have to have two tags for the little calf I want to sell – it takes all the fun out of it," she says, still smiling nevertheless.
Her clotted cream is £1.10/227g pot, and butter is 70p/250g.
"I should charge more, I am told, but I am soft, " she says. " I shall never be rich!"
When churn collections ceased Barbara Lake chose to make the milk from her small herd into clotted cream and butter instead of buying a 60gal tank.
Barbara washes and kneads out the buttermilk and further moisture is removed as she beats the butter on a wooden patter. Finished pats are impressed with the farms mark.