It is interesting to note how the image of butter has changed in the last decade. It is no longer assumed to be the villainous ingredient that dieticians would have once led us to believe. Studies have shown that, in moderation, a small quantity of good quality, artisanally made butter is actually a healthy and nourishing food, enabling us to absorb fat soluble vitamins into our blood and giving us satiety, the feeling of fullness. Amongst many nutrients, it is particularly high in Vitamins D, E and K, as well as anti-oxidants, iodine and selenium.
For many years I have been eating a particularly delicious type of butter from Netherend Farm. It is beautiful to behold: a gentle, creamy, soft golden colour, with a taste that is rich and fulsome. I have always enjoyed cooking and baking with it, as well as spreading it on warm toast with homemade jam. So I made an appointment to visit its makers to find out how it is made and what makes it so special.
It was in 1936 that William and Mary Weeks set up a dairy farm in the village of Netherend, near Lydney in Gloucestershire. By 1983 it was their son Wyndham and his wife Linda’s turn to take over the milk production, and by then legislation meant that a pasteuriser had to be installed on the farm, purchased with help from a government grant. Young Wyndham used to go round the village selling milk and cream on his bicycle, but the fashion for semi-skimmed and skimmed milk at the time was such that there was a surplus of cream. So as not to waste the cream, Linda decided that she would buy an electric, 10 gallon wooden butter churning machine, and she started making butter from home, to sell in the local shops.
Twenty years ago the butter was spotted by a local Wye Valley distributor, who told the Weeks that London restaurants would absolutely love the taste of this traditionally churned butter, and the rest is history. The small 30 gram salted and unsalted portions as well as the 250 g. blocks are now sold not just to the best delicatessens and farm shops but also to Claridges, the Savoy Grill Room, Neal’s Yard, the Harrods Food Hall, the Virgin Airlines First Class Lounge, Japanese Airlines and quite a number of Michelin starred restaurants. Yet what readers will find remarkable is how such a successful business can operate out of what is essentially a tiny, family-owned artisanal dairy.
When you see Netherend dairy from the outside you could be forgiven for thinking it is just another timber farmyard outbuilding, down a rural lane, hidden amongst trees, wildflowers and hedges, but step inside and your senses are assailed by the smell of disinfectant and the sight of piles of cardboard boxes, labels, aprons, wellies and hygiene certificates all over the wall. Once through into the butter making room, hands washed, hair tied into a blue shower cap and shoes covered with a protective gauze, the clanking sound of machinery means you need to shout to be heard. The butter making is in full swing, and the all the staff are busy.
Simon Pilpotts, who has been working here since 1996, has stopped the cream from churning, in a huge cylindrical stainless steel vat, to show me how the buttermilk and the prills of butter separate. The mixture looks like scrambled eggs. The cream is bought in from Cotswold Dairies, and some of it is organic and used in the production of organic butter.
“The cream splits so that the buttermilk sinks to the bottom and then the butter prills are at the top. What we then need to do is to drain the buttermilk out. The prills are then sprayed with water, and washed again and again with clean water so that we can be sure all the buttermilk is washed away,” Linda explains.
It takes 10 pints of milk to make just one pint of cream and it takes 2000 litres of cream to make ¾ tonne of butter. The temperature in the room is kept at between 12-14 degrees C.
At the moment the buttermilk is taken away to feed local pigs. “It makes the pork and the bacon taste lovely!” Linda enthuses. “The crackling on it is really delicious” adds Simon. Yet from 2000 litres of cream 500 litres of buttermilk are wasted, so Linda and Wyndham have bought extra machinery housed in an adjacent building to see if they can pasteurise and sell buttermilk and yoghurt as well as selling butter.
“We have to make sure that the prills are completely clean from buttermilk,” Simon continued. “If there is a residue then the buttermilk quickly turns to cheese.”
The air temperature and pressure has a great effect on butter making: on a hot or a thundery day the churning of the cream will be really quick, whereas in winter it can be really slow.
The prills are then kneaded, just like bread dough, in the churner, by paddles. The colour is really golden, like wild primroses, but I am told that in the spring the colour is much more intense, because the cows have a very rich diet, full of clover, buttercups and new grass.
To make salted butter they add 1.6% -1.7% rock salt, but are also considering using a flaky sea salt. “The problem is that sea salt is really expensive, and we have to use a lot of it,” said Linda.
The butter then passes through another machine where it is turned into a large sausage shape and then ultimately cut by a guillotine to make individual butter portions. There are two ladies in charge of the packaging and boxing. On the other side of the room is the machine that makes the larger 250 gram rectangles. All the packaging carries an oak leaf logo, a nod to the location of the dairy, between the Rivers Severn and Wye, near the Forest of Dean, where oak trees were felled to produce the wood that built the ships that sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada in the 16thCentury.
The butter making shift starts at 5.30 am and finishes at 2 pm five days a week. It is very physical work as well as work that requires mental alertness, as the product requires total consistency. The draining of the buttermilk is a really messy business, as buckets need to be alternated underneath the giant drain hole at the bottom of the churner. Hanging on hooks and shelves are different coloured brushes and buckets, to ensure that every inch of the dairy is cleaned and disinfected after the end of the shift.
When we sit in Linda and Whyndham’s house, across the road, to have our coffee, they tell me how much has changed in dairy farming in the last 30 years. They can count at least 12 farmers within a two mile radius that have left the land completely owing to the low retail cost of milk and the high costs of production, as well as all the bureaucracy that accompanies all farming businesses.
The Weeks family did originally live in the middle of Netherend village, but the 200 acre farm became completely surrounded by houses as the village grew. As a result they decided to move to the more isolated spot where they are now, where they were able to secure planning permission from the local council to set up their butter dairy. Their house is modern, red brick and extremely comfortable: there is not one thing out of place, it is spic and span and orderly, with family photographs, fresh flowers and ornaments in neat rows. The views are spectacular, across fields and water, the river views and farmland spread out in front of the kitchen sink to the horizon. Their land is now leased out to tenant farmers, and their energies are directly focussed on making butter.
The couple originally met at a Young Farmers’ event, “The original dating agency!” as Linda calls it, and have been married for 38 years. Linda told me that she always knew she wanted to live on the land and be a farmer’s wife. “That’s why we started making butter you see,” she explained. “With all the problems that have occurred in the dairy industry we wanted to find a way to stay here and carry on, we love it so much. The way to do that, and to make a living from the process, was to add value to milk, and that is what we have done.”
On the packaging there is a photograph of little Wyndham, aged 5, sitting on a tractor. How different the world looked then, when local produce was sold to local villages. The family tries to keep their food miles as small as possible on the distribution front by ensuring that whenever they take a delivery of butter somewhere they come back with a full load of cream. Now, according to Wyndham, the emerging economies of Asia, particularly China, are buying British cream, and therefore the cost is rising. Exporting British cream and butter to the Far East seems the way forward.
There is no denying, despite the beauty and serenity of their surroundings, that Linda and Wyndham have worked tirelessly throughout their lives to achieve the position they are in now, and are living testimony to a breed of British farming stock that overcomes all adversity, come what may. Linda taught herself to do all the bookkeeping, ordering, selling and marketing, and explained that you have to be completely self-sufficient in this sort of business. Their daughter, Rachel, has just had a new baby but will soon return to the business to ensure that a new generation of Weeks is at the helm of the butter ship when needs be. The Netherend story, hopefully, will never end.
Gloucestershire GL15 6PB