Three characters in the book I’m currently writing live on a farm. For readers to believe in them as real people they need to see them in the context of their daily lives. In this case, in the dairy where Bronnen and her mother are making butter that they will sell at the weekly market.
Butter making was a time-consuming process that demanded care and absolute cleanliness. Household advice of the time recommended churning twice a week in summer. After morning milking, the milk for butter was poured into large shallow earthenware dishes and left to stand for 6-7 hours in the dairy to allow the cream to rise to the top. After the cream had risen to the surface it was skimmed off and set aside for the churn. The skimmers – which might be brass or wood (sycamore was popular as it didn’t splinter or taint) were round and shaped like a saucer with holes in the bottom for the milk to drip through.
Once the cream was in the churn, the handle was turned to rotate the barrel. After about 15 minutes the fat would form small grains which gradually clumped together. When the butter had “come” the barrel was opened, cold water was poured in, and the churn turned for several more minutes. The churn was opened again and the buttermilk poured out into a wooden bucket. This was set aside for drinking in the house, the remainder for the pigs. Next, clean cold water was added to the churn and the butter thoroughly washed several times, then squeezed by hand to make sure all the buttermilk was removed. If this wasn’t done, the butter would quickly spoil. Scooped from the churn into the butter worker - a long shallow trough – the butter was washed again with clean cold water then pressed with a perforated roller to remove any remaining liquid. Then it was salted and worked some more. Lastly it was packed into a lidded earthenware crock or wooden tub, pressed down hard with a wooden tool shaped like a mushroom to make sure no air or water remained trapped. Though it had to be very salty for storing, this butter would keep indefinitely. And the salt could always be washed out before it was used.
So how would the farmer’s wife wrap the butter she sold to a customer? Greaseproof paper wasn’t invented until 1848. My research - which included asking several historical novelist friends - returned several answers. The butter would be scooped out of the large tub or crock and shaped into blocks with small grooved wooden paddles called butter hands, or butter pats. These would be impressed with a wooden stamp. A sheaf of wheat symbolised prosperity; an acorn good luck; but many farmer's wives chose a leaf or flower. This was the farmer’s wife’s personal stamp - her trademark - on which rested her reputation as a butter maker.
Then the butter might be wrapped in dock leaves or butterbur leaves before being wrapped again in butter muslin. Both these leaves were very popular as they kept the butter cool and did not taint it. The wrapped blocks would be placed in a square or oblong lidded wicker basket lined with straw – to keep the contents aired and cool – and taken to market. It was also common for housewives buying butter to take along their own lidded earthenware dish. The butter would be weighed on special wooden butter scales then firmly pressed into the dish to exclude any air so it would not spoil.
Next time I go to the supermarket and take a block of butter from the chilled cabinet, I'll remember this and be grateful.