Black butter, ‘Lé Nier Buerre’, is a dark spicy spread, rich and aromatic with promises of dark winter nights and Christmas festivities.
Over two days in late October, a very ancient and traditional farm house delicacy in the island is kept alive by an army of volunteers, peeling, slicing, stirring and jar filling at ‘The Elms’ The National Trust’s headquarters in Jersey.
During the 18th century, nearly twenty per cent of Jersey’s arable land was made up of apple orchards and after the crop had been picked the tradition of producing the black butter became an annual social occasion.
Local women would get together to peel hundreds of pounds of apples whilst the men and children gather enough wood to keep the fire going for almost two days.
The fire is lit in the afternoon and in a huge preserving pan suspended above the fire the apple juice is boiled until it is reduced by half, then the apples are added and this mixture is stirred continuously with a long handled wooden ‘rabot’ or paddle.
The men take it in turns to stir non-stop, avoiding the spits from the boiling cauldron, as the cooking goes on all night and well into the next day. This looks quite therapeutic but as I found out, is actually quite hard work, though Dave Ferey, who has spent many years mastering the art, makes it look easy.
Finally the heavy pot gets dragged from the fire onto a huge tyre where the sugar and lemons, spices and liquorice are stirred in. Stirring continues for another hour as it all starts to cool down.
To check the Black butter is ready, a spoonful is put on a plate and it is deemed sticky enough when a wooden spoon pressed into the it can lift the plate.
Then the jar filling begins. A huge point of conversation is guessing how many jars will be filled with the sticky black butter, this year I can tell you there were 352 pots in total, but I very much doubt there are any left as the queue to buy them ‘hot off the press’ was gaining momentum as we left.
The traditional recipe used, with thanks to Neil Mourant.
- 13 1/2 gallons of fresh press apple juice
- 1012 lbs sweet apples
- 112 lbs Bramley apples
- 27 lbs sugar
- 450g liquorice
- 9oz mixed spice
- 9oz cinnamon
- 12 lemons
Many thanks to the National Trust for Jersey.