Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Dairy products - mid C16th to C18th

The number of cows mentioned in the inventories of Dodderhill compared to the few mentions of beef cattle suggested looking at the references to cheese and butter. Inventories only record the goods, which were of a permanent nature, and perishables were not listed. This means that milk and, to a certain extent, butter are not mentioned; however, because of the keeping quality of cheese it appears in varying amounts, from the modest amount for household consumption to quantities which must have been intended for sale at market. Cheese, for instance, would have been a staple food for the salt workers in Droitwich for whom meat was probably a luxury.

Milk was not drunk much in the 16th and 17th centuries, except by invalids or children, so most of the milk production would have gone into cheese making. No quantities of cheese are given in the 16th century but John More had a herd of 10 cows at Henbrook and had produced cheese worth £2 6s.8d. Richard Wilde (1585) of The Ford, who owned 6 cows, had cheese worth £3 6s and his son George had 75 cheese valued at £2 14s (about 8d each) made from the milk of his 10 cows, when he died in 1629. An indication of the scale of milk production is the 18 milk pans (possibly the large conical ceramic bowls commonly associated with the 17th-18th centuries) he had in his dairy. At this time the price of cheeses seemed to vary from 6d. to 5s. each which seems to indicate a large variation in size.

The number of people producing cheeses in Dodderhill increased slowly in the 17th century to 37%, and then remained somewhat constant at about 32% of the total number of inventories studied. The amount of cheese being produced increased during this period, with between 100 and 500 cheeses recorded on each of 8 inventories. The largest number of cheeses recorded were those of Edmund Daunce of Sagebury in 1667, made from the milk of his 10 cows and valued at £4 10s. By the 18th century Richard Cox (1718), a wealthy nailer, had 400 cheeses and Nicholas Lilly (1730), a cooper, had 300 cheeses valued at £2 14s. In 1727 the 49 cheeses of Richard Humphreys of The Holloway were valued at 12d. each. By comparison the large parish of Bromsgrove to the north of Dodderhill had cheese listed on only 24% of its inventories in the 17th century. Quite a number of the houses in Dodderhill parish had a room called the ‘cheese chamber’ where cheese along with other items could be stored. John Geeves (1725) had old cheese and 25 bushels of beans in his cheese chamber. Cheese chambers and dairies were exempt from the Window Tax by a statute of William III.

The dairy or day house was usually a stone or brick paved room on the coolest side of the house. A cool temperature is essential for butter making, though cheese making requires some warmth. The women made cheese from spring through to autumn, the summer milk being the richest and producing the best cheese. The equipment needed for cheese and butter making appears in some of the inventories. Warm milk was put into a milk pan or cowl and then rennet was added to the milk. Rennet was made from the stomach lining of a calf, and this, when added to milk, made it curdle into curds and whey. Some inventories specifically mention whey skeels, rendling cowls and cheese cowls or vats. A skeel was a wooden bucket with some of the staves projecting to make handles. The curds were then salted, cut into small pieces and then packed into cloths in cheese vats. These were left to drip and then squeezed to remove the liquid. Cheese presses or wrings were the item of equipment most often mentioned. In 1691 the press and stone of Nicholas Lilly of Wychbold Court was valued at 2s.6d. Stones were superseded by wooden screw presses, which were easier to use. Making the cheese took about three days and then the green cheeses were left to mature on shelves or a cheese cratch (rack) for at least three months. John Dugard of Dodderhill (1669) had 40 mature and 42 green cheeses stored on his 3 cheese shelves and cheese rack. The cheeses were turned every day for the first week and then twice a week until they were thought to be ready, which was at least three months. Edward Daunce of Sagebury (1667) had a frame with 13 shelves on which to store his cheeses and Giles Lumbard (1615) had a cheese ladder. A cheese ladder was a wooden frame placed over a cheese tub or skeel to support the cheese vat while the whey was pressed out and it dripped into the whey skeel below. This soft curd cheese was also eaten fresh and used in cooking to make deserts such as cheese cakes. We do not know what type of cheese was made locally but it is possible that it was a cheese like Cheshire where the salt in the grass eaten by the grazing cows gave a distinctive flavour to the cheese.

The second most mentioned piece of equipment was the churn. Churning butter was hard physical work, also done by the women. The cream was skimmed off the milk, using a slotted spoon called a skimmer, and then churned in a wooden churn until the butter ‘came’. The butter was then salted by hand and packed into butter pots (tall straight-sided ceramic jars appearing in this period are often referred to as butter pots). The buttermilk left in the churn was used in cooking but the butter was either used at home or taken to market to be sold.

From Tudor times the more affluent members of the community had a dairy or day house. It was recognised that cleanliness was crucially important when making cheese and butter to avoid tainting the food. Hours were spent by the women of the household, scrubbing the floors and scouring the vessels used to make cheese and butter. In 1615, Gervais Markham, who wrote a number of practical manuals, recommended that this be done daily. Robert Herrick, the 17th century Devonshire poet, wrote

‘Wash your pails and cleanse your Dairies,
Sluts are loathsome to the Fairies.’

Next page – Agriculture – Meat production

Cheese seller

Cheese would be sold locally at markets such as those held at Droitwich (which received its Market Charter 1215 in a Charter of King John) and Bromsgove (which received its Market Charter in 1200)

Butter-making sketch

Churning butter would be a long process. Similar wooden churns can be seen at Avoncroft Museum.

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