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Jersey: It's butter but not as we know it

Jersey: It's butter but not as we know it
Produced in November the islanders associaite it with Christmas. Philip Lowery meets the Jersey Black Butter makers
Edward Teach, better known as ‘Blackbeard’, was one of the most bloodthirsty and despised pirates of all time and was eventually killed in a fierce battle where he apparently sustained 5 bullet wounds and at least 20 sword cuts before dying. The triumphant and victorious Navy captain was so delighted he cut off Blackbeard’s head and hung it on his ship's rigging to celebrate.
 Had the bloodthirsty Mr Teach plied his trade in Jersey, his fate would have been somewhat different as for over 100 years the islanders of Jersey were actually licensed by the Crown to seize foreign ships and this form of legalised piracy was the source of considerable wealth up until 1815 when peace was restored with France and privateering ceased.
This tale aptly demonstrates how well Jersey has managed to turn itself to all sorts of activities, to constantly reinvent itself and to continue to create success and wealth for its inhabitants. Over the centuries, Jersey has consistently punched above its weight in industries as diverse as dried fish exports, cider, ship-building, agriculture and tourism, and for an island of only 90,000 people has managed to create a brand that is world famous for financial services, potatoes, dairy cows and a particular type of sweater.
But it is to cider and apple orchards that I want to return to, as it seems the island does too.
In the 1830s nearly 300,000 gallons of Jersey cider were exported annually to the UK and two-thirds of the Island was covered in apple orchards. In fact at one stage, so many apple trees grew in Jersey that the States had to pass an act to stop orchards being planted unless as a replacement for an old one. One of the most respected English brands of cider, Aspalls, now based in Suffolk, was founded by the Chevalier family who originated in Jersey.
Since those heady appley days, the islands agriculture has changed significantly, much of it now being dictated by the hugely successful cash crop of Jersey Royal potatoes, but in the last few years, the apple has begun to make a resurgence and one of the old, traditional apple-based products is making a comeback too; Jersey Black Butter.

It’s not actually butter at all, in terms of being churned from milk but was rather a traditional preserve made at the end of the hugely abundant annual apple harvest. Originally a popular community event, the production involved many of the villagers who peeled and chopped the fruit which was then added to a cauldron of cider that had been boiled over a hot fire for hours. Together with sugar, lemon, liquorice and spices the resultant mixture was then continually stirred for up to 48 hours to stop it burning, a labour intensive process made quite agreeable by the significant quantities of cider and apple brandy that would have been consumed along with the traditional singing, story-telling and dancing that would have gone on at the same time.

Traditionally being produced at the end of October and beginning of November it seems to have evolved into something that feels like Christmas. The La Mare Estate is the only commercial producer of ‘Le Niere Buerre’ and has spent the last ten years perfecting their recipe and at the Real Food Festival earlier this year the visitors they sampled unequivocally felt that it tasted ‘like Christmas in a jar’. You could certainly imagine it being served on a slice of toast on Christmas morning, but it has many more uses other than this, including as an ingredient in all sorts of sweet and savoury dishes. It has also tasted its own success having garnered a two star Great Taste Award in 2008 which was improved to a three star Award this year, which is no small achievement with only around 80 of the 5,000 or so products entered achieving this.

But it’s no real surprise that Jersey keeps delivering this sort of quality produce. Despite its business and banking reputation, when you arrive on the island you get a definite sense of a land of food and farming, with its small villages and fields of green pasture and of course its world famous cows chewing contentedly on the grass. But it is most apparent when talking to the locals who are seriously passionate about their food that you realise that a visit to Jersey really needs to be built around eating and drinking.

I spent an afternoon with Mark Jordan, the head chef at the Michelin-starred Ocean restaurant, which is housed in the absolutely beautiful Atlantic Hotel on the south west of the island, and it was immediately apparent that here was a man who couldn’t believe his luck. A keen surfer, he had a wealth of committed and brilliant producers on his doorstep and to top it all some of the best surf in the world literally outside his kitchen window. The creativity of the Jersey producers I met with him was spectacular, from the shell fish supplier who had turned an old German fort into Faulkner Fisheries Vivier (a Vivier is a unit that designed to keep the lobster and crab alive and in good condition for market) to Manor Farm Classic Herd who had managed to break away from the island milk co-operative and now produces some award winning cheeses from its organic Jersey milk. This depth of quality ingredients is utterly reflected in the Ocean’s menus and the Classic Herd Jersey beef that Mark had raved about all afternoon, and which is grown especially for the restaurant, really did live up to expectations.

The thing with Jersey is that you think you know it because it has that air of familiarity about it, what with its potatoes, cows and jumpers, but the reality is that unless you have spent a great deal of time here, you almost certainly have only just scratched the surface. Clean waters, bracing sea air and deep rich soil make this a food-lovers paradise, a destination rich in diversity and one that will thrill anyone who loves their food.

Stay The Atlantic Hotel: with Mark Jordan's innovative cooking benefiting from seriously good local ingredients and spectacular ocean views
Eat The Bass and Lobster A relative newcomer on the east of the island, this is a really buzzy place serving sparkling fresh fish like the bass and lobster I tried from local Fresh Fish Company, utterly superb Local Produce.
Where to buy Jersey Black Butter La Mare Estate, La Route de Hogue Mauger, St Mary, Jersey JE3 3BA A great place to visit including a restaurant serving a great Jersey Black Butter cheesecake and a 25-acre estate producing cider and apple brandy as well as a range of lovely chocolates made by their own (Aussie) chocolatier.
Regular flights from London Gatwick with Flybe take around 45 minutes, hopefully the fog won’t hold you up.
With thanks to John Garton of Genuine Jersey and Kate le Blond from Jersey Enterprise.

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3 December 2009
By: Philip Lowery
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