Friday 29 September 2023

Making Butter


Milk is not only an amazing food, but can be made into many other foods as well – butter, ghee, kefir, yoghurt and thousands of kinds of cheese – and all of them can be made at home. We are fortunate to be able to use them; in many parts of the world, people cannot digest milk products, so they tend to be found mostly in Europe, and occasionally in India or the Middle East.

Butter was deeply important in this part of the world; for dairying peoples it was the most accessible form of oil, needed for cooking food and releasing the extra nutrition. Back when people milked their own cows and goats, they made their own butter with a churn, but you can do the same thing with a screw-top glass jar or some other sealable container.

First fill the jar one-quarter to one-third full of cream – a greater proportion than that and it won’t work.  People in times past would use whole, un-homogenized milk, but that’s difficult to find these days, so cream is a good place to start. 

The next step is to shake the jar vigorously for perhaps 20 minutes ; try putting on some dance music and giving yourself an aerobic workout, jumping around the house shaking the jar all the while. Don’t worry if it takes more or less, as it will be fairly clear when butter forms inside . At first the cream will become, effectively, whipped cream, and if the jar is more than third full you never get enough agitation to get past this stage. Eventually, though, you should see the liquid become thin again inside, with a clump of something in the middle. That clump is your butter, and the liquid is buttermilk.

To separate them, place a strainer over a bowl, unscrew the jar and dump the contents into the strainer. You can drink the buttermilk or use it for making pancakes or any number of other uses – it should keep for at least a week. The butter you can lift out and put in a bowl to sweat.

By “sweat” I don’t mean making it hot; in fact, you could put a few ice cubes in with the butter to keep it cool. It means that you have to chop, press, squeeze and knead the last of the watery buttermilk out of the butter, so that it will not go rancid. As in a party game, you must do this with spoons, touching the butter as little as possible with your hands – the warmth of your body could melt the butter. 

When you are sure the last bit of liquid has been squeezed out, you have butter. If you like you could use it this way, as Europeans do, or add salt as English and Irish do to preserve it longer. You could mix in chopped herbs, like parsley and chives, to spread on bread, or sage, garlic and rosemary to bake a chicken. Use your imagination.

In warmer countries – or in Ireland in warmer weather – butter will not keep long in the heat, so before refrigeration Europeans used clarified butter, and Indians developed ghee. Ghee is essentially spiced clarified butter, and while there are many variations, you can make a simple version at home. 

First put your butter in a pan on the stove on very low heat – I put a thin metal plate on our gas stove, and the pan on top of that, just to dissipate the heat a bit more. The butter will quickly melt and begin bubbling, which is good – but be very careful not to let it darken.

The butter should separate into three layers; a white film on top, the oil layer that is most of the butter, and the milk remains on the bottom. Only the middle layer is what you want. Early on you can spoon off the milky bits on top, and spread them on bread if you like. After that you can add spices, like bay leaves or fenugreek seeds, as the Indians do.

Keep it on very low heat for half-an-hour to an hour, checking frequently – again, it might take more or less for you. When there is no more bubbling or hissing, just the oil and the milk deposits at the bottom, you can strain it through a tea strainer and stop when you get to the milk deposits. The milk deposits, browned at this point, are still edible, and are good on popcorn. The rest should be a clear, golden-brown oil that will keep for months without refrigeration.

Or, you could bury it in a bog if you have one nearby, as I’ve covered here:

Saturday 23 September 2023

Thatched roofs

Most of us take for granted that we will spend most of our lives paying off other people that we paid to build our homes, yet until historically yesterday people made their own homes. They built with wattle-and-daub, cob, with squares of turf, with stones, bricks or planks of wood, using whatever they had; everyone knew a carpenter or mason, John Curran remembered, and they pooled their resources, and houses, farm buildings, and stonewalls were constructed when required.”

Some of those building materials could be superior to what we use today. In rural Ireland I once helped sculpt a house out of cob, a wet mix of sand, clay and straw that holds together like concrete, and can be far more durable. The house began with stone walls that went up to waist height, as cob needs to be raised above the damp. Then we heaped the wet cob mix on top of the stone walls one lump at a time – “cob” is from an Old English word for “lump” – and then trod them down in our bare feet. Bit by bit, the walls got higher, until we could lay a roof on top. After the walls are given a plaster finish, the house can look just like any other, but made at a fraction of the cost, as it uses the simplest and cheapest material on Earth -- earth itself. Despite this, they can last hundreds of years; Sir Walter Raleigh’s palatial mansion was built of cob, and still stands after 500 years.

Many farmers in my native USA make homes out of straw bales, which are as fire-resistant as wood and which are superb insulators. Here, though, straw was put to other uses.

“Ninety-five percent of the houses at that time were thatched, and I can tell you they were warm comfortable houses,” John Lydon remembered. “The fireplace was almost as wide as the house, and there was always a huge turf-fire blazing in the centre, which drove heat all over the kitchen. 

The straw from a thatched roof was free from the fields; some roofs even had scarecrows to keep birds from stealing bits for their nests. Local saplings were cut, bent and tucked into place to secure the straw so tightly that the fiercest winds couldn’t dislodge it. Nor, in this damp climate, was it a fire hazard. The roofs lasted several years until moss started growing over the straw, staining the rain green as it streaked down the white sides of the cottages.

Thatchers were “usually lithe and agile to facilitate climbing on roofs that were often fragile,” Joe Keane said. “He chose his materials with great care to ensure durability against harsh winters. The thatched roofs of Irish cottages were aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sustainable.”

“The old-time thatchers could turn their skills with straw to other areas, and one of these was apparently the weaving of mattresses which were said to be of such quality that they would last for years: some of them had even mastered the difficult art of making conical ‘bee skeps’ out of straw,” Maurice McAleese said. “When a thatcher succeeded in weaving a skep he could consider himself as being at the head of his trade.”

Even if you don’t want a thatched roof, you could make a green roof. Cultivating plants on your roof creates a patch of natural habitat, partially replacing what was destroyed to create the building in the first place. They provide food for bees and other miniature helpers who will fertilise your garden. They help insulate your home, which can spare you heating and cooling costs. Finally, they look brilliant.

To create one people generally cover an ordinary roof with some kind of lightweight plastic, like pool liner, and spread thin but fertile soil on top of that. The soil should be laced with grass and other seeds, and over the soil should stretch fleece to stop erosion until the plants grow.

These roofs do not have to just carry grass, which is one of the hardiest of plants. They could carry wildflowers as well, which would create a striking cover for your home as well as fodder for insects. I urban tenants who are even using their roofs for beehives, allowing the bees to pollinate urban gardens while allowing them to steer clear of passing humans. If you grow hanging plants like nasturtiums, you could even have the plants hang over the sides of your roof, creating awnings and shaded walkways in the seasons you need them most.

Friday 15 September 2023


 Hear the word “farmland,” and you think of rows of crops on tilled flat land, a foot or two high, sown every spring and harvested every fall. This is what most farms look like today – tractors, straight lines, production maximized for efficiency.

It’s a system that has worked well for many cultures for thousands of years, but it has limitations. Every year seeds must be saved, land tilled, weeds pulled and pests eradicated, so farming has been a laborious business. Each harvest yields a glut of food that must be preserved or processed to last the rest of the year. Farmland tends to be monoculture, scoured of trees and the cornucopia of plants and animals found in the wild.

Producing food this way works best on a grand scale, so farms have become ever larger, further removed from the experience of most people. Such methods require fossil fuels to run the tractors, make the pesticides and process the harvest into Cheesy Poofs. Farmers have been forced to find more and more creative ways to fend off the pests and diseases that evolve past our defences.

There is another approach, however: permaculture, developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to replicate some of Nature’s diversity, but using plants and animals people can eat. Permaculturists generally prefer perennials, plants that do not need to be sown and harvested over and over, and strive to create a self-sustaining landscape that generates a maximum of food but requires a minimum of maintenance.

Permaculture uses many different species together, treating them not as individual products but as components of a living system; for example, one plant might gain from nutrients its neighbour produces, or one plant might produce a scent that wards pests off the others.

The details depend on the climate and natural flora, but a good example is the forest garden. A permaculture grower might plant trees that produce nuts – according to Holmgren, a forest of walnut trees can produce as much food as the same acreage of wheat. Under the trees one can grow shade-loving plants, to create another layer of crops in the understory. Vines that produce berries can be trained to run up trunks and fences. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, taking different nutrients so do not compete. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. By planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

One of permaculture’s most basic principles is that gardens should require a minimum of input and generate no waste – vitals like water and nutrients should be used and re-used within the system. For example, Holmgren recommends keeping chickens inside a greenhouse if the weather is not too hot: the chickens keep warm inside, and in turn help keep the greenhouse warm with their body heat. They scratch through the soil, eat the young weeds and pests and their manure fertilizes the ground.

Mollison uses another example from his own land, when he needed more fertilizer: he planted berries across his roof, which not only provided food, beauty, shade and insulation, but attracted birds – which promptly fertilized everything in sight.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Published at Quillette

I'm delighted to report that the fantastic magazine Quillette has published my piece on classical education -- check it out.