A tiny dot in the English Channel off the coast of France, the island of Jersey has been home to conquering Vikings, War of the Roses battles, and the exiled Victor Hugo. The island, a British Crown dependency, is also home to a unique culture and language: Jèrriais, similar to but distinct from French. The most delicious phrase in Jèrriais? Nièr beurre, or black butter.
To make the regional specialty, islanders boil apples in cider until they become a sweet, slightly tangy spread, then add licorice and spices. Traditionally, communities would come together several times every autumn and winter for la séthée d’nièr beurre, or a “black butter evening,” where they would cook the butter amid stories, songs, and general revelry. Nowadays, communities and private organizations often have a yearly black butter night, where they gather to peel and prepare barrels full of recently-harvested apples. L’Office du Jèrriais, the official body promoting the Jèrriais language and Jersey culture, also sponsors an annual black butter evening as a formal cultural festival, including traditional costumes and folk songs.
Using recipes that often date back at least a hundred years, Jerseyans submerge apples in boiling cider over a wood hearth fire. An hour after the last apples are added, cooks add lemon juice for an acidic tang. Black treacle and brown sugar can also be included. It takes a village to prepare black butter, not just because the gathering has emotional value, but because the mixture requires continuous stirring, with several-feet-long wooden rabot, or paddles, for more than a day. After hours of laborious tending, the butter becomes molten, syrupy, and black. In the last hour it simmers, the secret ingredients are added: spices and licorice, which give the black butter its signature warm, slightly spicy aroma, which one aficionado described as “like Christmas.” To test whether the butter is properly cooked, community members pour some onto a plate, then press the underside of a wooden spoon onto it. If the butter sticks to the spoon when it’s lifted, the mixture is ready.
The final concoction is poured into dozens of jars, kept to eat for the rest of the year, given as gifts, or sold in local markets and cultural festivals. While the Jèrriais language and accompanying folk traditions are on the decline, supporters of local culture continue to hold black butter nights. And to this day, Jersey residents and visitors can enjoy the tangy spread on fresh bread with or without local butter, another notable Jersey product made from the island’s famous cows.