Buttermilk is an essential in cooking and yet is very hard to get hold of in the UK. Sure you can buy cultured buttermilk but this is more of a yoghurt, thick and set.
Ireland, on the other hand, still has real buttermilk available in every shop or supermarket and, indeed, Soda Bread would not be possible without it. On my regular trips over I always buy cartons and cartons bringing them home to freeze and ensure that my scones are light and fluffy and my soda bread is of the right consistency.
My friend Roisin Ballinger of the Burren Bakehouse (@claddaggal )makes terrific Sodas here in Wales and gets her regular supply of buttermilk locally from Netherend Farm I obtain mine from their Farm Shop in Chepstow where the brand name is Longley Farm (though this may be theirs with a different branding) and when I have used it, the results have been impressive. However there is a 20 mile drive to get to the only local outlet so I wanted to make my own and ensure a supply that was consistent and very, very local.
Recently Irish food blogger Mona Wise – who blogs as Wise Words - wrote of receiving a buttermilk plant which began life over 40 years ago in a Wexford monastery, and starting her own. In many ways a buttermilk plant resembles a Sourdough starter, it grows naturally, expands and can be both reused and share.
Mona wrote of conducting a Google search which turned up several recipes for a plant; so I followed her example and searched myself. There certainly are a lot of recipes out there but all seem to have one thing in common, an initial starter of yeast, sugar and milk. The direction of travel was clear.
But first I wanted to check on Darina Allen’s approach and turned to the ever faithful Forgotten Skills book. This suggested a good way of making buttermilk by combining full fat milk with lemon juice and allowing it 15 minutes to begin to curdle before using, however, I wanted a plant rather than a one-off culture. The omission of a plant from her book is a little confusing as the Cookery School uses buttermilk from their own cows after it has been separated for butter or cheese.
Whilst on the course there Darina had commented on the difficulty of making buttermilk in the UK as our milk tends to rot rather than culture.
A challenge indeed.
Fortunately Wales has Calon Wen (White Heart for non-Welsh speakers) a milk made and bottled in Wales which is not only Organic but not homogenised. I have no firm evidence but I think that it is the homogenisation – blending of the milk to ensure an even distribution of fats that is the problem. I certainly would not try to make buttermilk with a well-known brand that is not only homogenised but triple filtered to ensure total consistency.
So research done it was time to get cracking.
One ounce of fresh yeast was combined with the same weight of sugar and creamed together till it turned into a deep brown liquid.
2 pints of Semi Skimmed Calon Wen was heated gently to tepid. (I used Semi Skimmed to replicate the process of using separated milk and to avoid having to use equal amounts of full fat milk and water.)
The two bowls were mixed and placed into a large Kilner jar which had been sterilised and was then confined to the warmth and dark of the airing cupboard to grow.
This should take two days or so and then the milk will be pored through a muslin lined sieve. The milk should strain through and can be used for breads, scones or any of the many recipes that call for it.
Hopefully there will be a lumpy residue in the muslin which will be rinsed in water and reused to start the next culture in the Kilner Jar - once it has been scalded. Over a number of cultures the residue should grow and grow until it reaches the stage that it can be shared and another cook can make their own Buttermilk.
So it worked!
After a couple of days the milk had turned to a recognisable Buttermilk, a small amount of culture was left after straining and, once rinsed in fresh cold water went back into the scalded container with another quart of milk to restart the process.
One pint of Buttermilk went into a bottle in the fridge and the other fresh pint combined with flour, salt and Bread Soda to make my first totally home-grown Soda Bread.
Certainly Local, tasted Great.
Visit UK Food Bloggers Association