Heritage and sustainable development: Black butter in Jersey

Traditional orchards used to be widespread throughout Europe but have mostly disappeared. In the Channel Islands, the National Trust for Jersey has successfully revived the old tradition of Black Butter making. This engages people and is an opportunity to save and expand remaining orchards by facilitating public support. We have documented Black Butter making.

Traditional orchards: revival of customs and traditions benefits people, communities and biological conservation

Our cultural project aims to strengthen our emotional connection with traditional orchards, thus supporting conservation indirectly by

    • re-establishig a direct connection with and benefits from orchards,
    • increasing demand for products (apple, pears etc. and social activities),
    • increasing awareness for the function and conservation status of orchards,
    • increasing lobbying by a broader section of society to maintain traditional orchards, and
    • creating a fertile social environment supporting management of biodiversity on the ground.

Traditional orchards of apple and pear trees used to be widespread throughout Europe. They have provided us with delicious fruit, jams, marmalades, juices and cider, and with social functions, community spirit and traditions. Communal harvest of apples and pears, cider making and making of preservative such as “black butter” were widespread communal and social activities.

Over the centuries, a large variety of locally bred and adapted fruit trees have been cultivated. They represent a fantastic and precious genetic resource for future plant breeding, such as the improvement of disease resistant varieties.

Many traditional orchards have disappeared. Many of those that remain are in a neglected condition. The disappearance is stunning and dramatic. Throughout Europe. For example, in England numbers have declined by 63% since 1950 (see article on BBC). Surviving traditional orchards remain at risk because of intensification of agriculture, land development, inadequate management and neglect. A recent survey in England by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and showed that 45% of the remaining traditional orchards were in poor condition.

Current conservation efforts focus on the biological management of these habitats. However, if we were to revitalize the demand for the delicious products from traditional orchards, will make the general public again a part of or cultural landscape, which created these biodiversity-rich habitats in the first place. The strengthening or revival of customs and traditions connected with traditional orchards and their products has a very important role to play. It not only increases interest and knowledge, but it can help to strengthen the social fabric of local populations.

An example from the Channel Islands

Take Jersey, the small Island between the UK and France. Traditional orchards have almost completely disappeared. With it, the very old and traditional farm-house delicacy of “Black Butter”, a spread made of apples, has almost disappeared. The yearly production of Black Butter was a highly important key event of the traditional rural culture of the Island.

The National Trust for Jersey  manages some of the last remaining traditional orchards. About ten years ago, it has revived the tradition of Black Butter making. It is a public event, where enthusiastic volunteers work tirelessly to chop and peel large quantities of apples and continually stir the mixture for 25 hours over an open wood fire.  Young and old, locals, migrants and visitors to the island, people of any social background come together, work and celebrate this wonderful event. The community feel is fantastic. It is also one of the rare occasions, where the dying-out language of Jèrriais, the Norman language of Jersey, which has almost become extinct as a living language (BlackButter in Jèrriais is Nièr Beurre).

Documentary: Black Butter – Tasting the Past / Lé Nièr Beurre: Un R’tûnfîn

Daniela from Funk Productions and Nature Heritage (now owner of Puerto Almendral in Valparaiso, Chile) worked with the National Trust for Jersey to film for the first time in professional format the Jersey tradition of Black Butter making. The complete process, including the peeling of the apples, the stirring of the mixture in a large cauldron throughout the night, the camaraderie and the jarring up was recorded to capture the essence of this ancient recipe and reveal the spirit of one on Jersey’s best kept secrets: its people.

But filming the event was only the beginning. With the support of Jersey Archive Daniela discovered some very precious and rare footage about black butter making and rural life in Jersey, which complements the film in a journey from the past that looks towards the future.

This filming was edited as a 48 minutes documentary and the soundtrack includes original recordings from traditional Channel Islands music courtesy of SocSercq Museum and Archive and L’Office du Jèrriais.

For a high quality resolution version of the video, visit VIMEO.