Mistress Agnes (almost) makes butter

Twenty six 7-9 year olds in front of us to learn about daily life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Amongst other things, we dress them up, give them toys to play with and set them to work with my recently acquired hand butter churn. Of course it is the wrong time of year to make butter; the seventeenth century housewife made butter in the spring but we want the children to have an idea just how much hard work this was. As they start their lunch we leave them with the churn to plunge away with in shifts. We do have full cream milk – no hope without but wonder if we should have gone for super extra creamy milk to give them half a chance. The children stalwartly thud up and down with the hand churn for nearly 2 hours. The milk has gone decidedly yellow and there are signs of little solid flecks in it. I wonder if this may consititute slave labour so I take over whilst my colleague puts out the Great Fire of London again. Yes, as I rinse the churn out after the children have left, there is definitely something solid in there. It’s very small but it is there. I am very excited by this. Even after my short stint my arm is aching and I shall probably never play the violin again (not that I could in the first place). This is the way to begin to appreciate the sheer physical effort required for the daily tasks of our ancestors.


2 comments on “Mistress Agnes (almost) makes butter

  1. Polly Rubery says:

    I think perhaps you missed out a stage here! First you need to skim the cream off of the milk and then leave it to mature for a few days.

    Then churn it! It is harder in the cooler months than in the warmer months (although it is actually hard to do if it is too warm too) but of course the reason it was done in the Spring is that is when most cows calved, and hence there was the most surplus milk to leave to settle.

    In order to skim it you have to pour each milking into a large, flat, open topped pan. Once the cream has come to the top (leave for a day) then you use a skimmer (a slightly curved piece of metal with holes in it) to skim off the cream into a bowl. Whilst you should never mix milk from different milkings it is OK to add your different skimmings to the same bowl until you have enough to churn.

    Of course you will probably just need to buy your cream ready skimmed – the thicker the better!

    I used to have a Jersey house cow so this was something I did every day, but I have to say that a Kenwood Mixer with a K beater is the best (modern) way to churn it!

    You then of course need a pair of wooden “Scotch Hands” to beat the water out of it once you have drained the butter-milk from it (do not throw away as it is very useful in itself) and then washed and added your salt to it – you should never churn past the “grainy” stage.

    I still have my skimmer (although aluminium probably isn’t very authentic for your era) and my Scotch hands. You’d be welcome to have them if you wish, can’t ever see myself hand-milking a cow again!

    Oh and in your part of the country you put the aforementioned pans over a low fire to produce Clotted cream…:-)

    • Thanks very much Polly – I clearly have no idea what to do! We just poured some milk out the milk bottle! Still it did give the children (and me) an idea of just how much hard work C17th life was. We also did things like laundry with them. We will probably try again today. Really appreciate your advice. Now off to find a cow…..

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