So how did bread and butter find their true partner? One glorious proposition would have us believe that the same 16th-century astronomer who first postulated that the Earth travels around the Sun also first paired bread and butter.
Rumor has it that Copernicus, who had been working as an economic administrator, played a key role in directing the defense when a castle in Olsztyn, north-eastern Poland, came under siege from the Teutonic knights. To add to an already tricky situation, the castle was simultaneously subjected to a nasty bout of the plague, putting Copernicus’s plans at risk, as his soldiers were dropping like flies. Luckily for all concerned, Copernicus had earlier trained in medicine and he began to notice that only the soldiers who ate bread contracted the plague. Realizing that the bread had to be carried up several flights of steps from the kitchen, and was often dropped on the way, Copernicus’s inspired solution was to coat the loaves in a thin layer of churned cream. This meant it was possible to see which loaves had been dropped, and they could then be wiped clean (Copernicus was spookily ahead of his time here, since bacteria wasn’t discovered for another hundred years...). Lo and behold, the plague was curbed, and a teatime treat invented in the process. Unfortunately, this apocryphal story has now been largely discredited, and we can but hope that Copernicus is content to be known for his astronomy-related achievements.
So, if Copernicus was not in fact the instigator of spreading butter on bread, where does that leave us? It is highly likely that buttered bread was eaten some time before it was recorded in writing for posterity; however, written records are the surest evidence we have. And with the popularization of the printing press in the first half of the 15th century, the number of cooking and household management texts grew exponentially, with the genre firmly established by the early 18th century.
Intriguingly, though, one of the earliest mentions of bread and butter happens to be in the first treatise written about fly fishing. Now, anyone who has ever gone fishing knows the importance of having appropriate sustenance with them—and such was the advice of Juliana Berners, writing ‘The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle’ towards the end of the fifteenth century, and printed in The Boke of Saint Albans:
Browne breede tostyd wyth hony in lyknesse of a butteryd loof.
Thrilled as we were to learn that the first mention of bread and butter eaten together was in a passage about fishing written by a dame, delving a little deeper revealed there was more to this than met the eye. It is widely suspected that the treatise in question was the work of multiple authors, especially as it only appeared in the second (1496) edition of the book, published by Wynkyn de Worde, who worked alongside William Caxton and may well have exercised considerable artistic license.
For our next account (albeit concerning buttered toast, rather than bread, but let’s not split hairs here), we have Fynes Moryson, writing in 1617, and later quoted by Elizabeth David, among others: ‘All within the sound of Bow Bell, are in reproach called cochnies, and eaters of buttered tostes.’
It is truly incredible to look up at the looming skyscrapers of London’s business district and imagine buttery-fingered villagers crunching on toast before the area even had so much as a port. And still more delightful to learn that that the consumption of bread and butter to counter the excesses of members of parliament appears to be a long-standing tradition, perhaps superseded today by the ubiquitous kebab! Note Samuel Pepys, who writes in his diary entry for 5th June 1661, of a post-work game of bowls and the subsequent ‘drinking of great draughts of claret, and eating botargo and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled.’
After reading hundreds of recipes and accounts of bread- and butter-making, what continues to astound us is how much remains the same. The difference now being the ancient techniques are used out of choice rather than necessity. Bread had to be left to prove so it would create a light loaf, cream had to be left to separate (and ferment in the meantime). Today, we have the technology to speed up these processes, but conversely, we’re returning to the old methods with a sense of wonder and delight. We’re seeing the benefits of the traditional methods and understanding that it is not always best to cut corners when you’re aiming to achieve maximum flavor and pleasure.
- Large mixing bowl
- Piece of muslin (cheesecloth) large enough to cover the mixing bowl
- Electric stand mixer or handheld electric beaters
- Digital thermometer
- Cold, clean surface
- 1 quart 40-percent Fat high quality double (thick) cream
- 3.5 oz Sour cream, crème fraîche or yogurt, which is the starter
- Rock salt, to taste (approx. 3/4 oz)
- In a large and spotlessly clean bowl, mix together your cream and starter (sour cream, crème fraîche or yogurt), stirring well to make sure the starter is fully incorporated.
- Cover the bowl with muslin and leave at room temperature (about 25ºC/77ºF) for 20 hours.
- When the time is up replace the muslin with plastic wrap/clingfilm and chill in the fridge for a further 20 hours.
- Remove the cultured cream from the fridge and leave it at room temperature for about an hour, or until it has warmed to around 8–14ºC (46–57ºF). This chilling and warming encourages the bacteria to develop and the cream to ferment.
- Now we’re ready to churn. Using an electric stand mixer or hand-held beaters on medium-high speed (or even whisking by hand if you’ve got arms like an ox) begin to whisk your cultured cream. It’s important to have your bowl no more than half full, as the cream will expand before it splits.
- When the cream completely splits to form yellow globules (called popcorn butter) and liquid (buttermilk), strain through a sieve, reserving both the popcorn butter and the buttermilk. This cultured buttermilk will keep for 12 days in the fridge.
- Quickly knead the popcorn butter on a cold, clean surface by working it with the heels of your hands, squeezing out any remaining buttermilk until all the moisture has been removed from your butter.
- Season with salt to taste. Then hand knead the butter again to release any final excess of moisture.
- The cultured butter will keep for up to 3 weeks in the fridge, and will continue to mature and develop over that time.
- Makes about 1 lb 2 oz butter and an equal amount cultured buttermilk.
Recipes excerpted with permission from Bread and Butter by Richard Snapes, Grant Harrington and Eve Hemingway, published by Quadrille October 2018, RRP $29.99 hardcover.