Start spreading the news ... the old family recipe that got butter business off pat
High on a hillside overlooking Slieve Croob and the lush Dromara countryside, Will and Allison Abernethy are on their way to making their first million from their delicious butter.
The only handmade butter-makers in Northern Ireland, their fresh artisan produce is in hot demand from London to Waterford, and with rave reviews spreading like wildfire on the internet, the sky's the limit.
The job means 6am starts and long working days, sometimes not over until 11pm, but the Abernethys don't mind. Old-fashioned churning is a labour of love for the down-to-earth couple, two diligent perfectionists who work hard for every penny they make. Their dedication to their craft produces the most perfectly fresh additive-free butter, far superior to anything on ordinary supermarket shelves, and now very popular with high-end restaurants, butchers, delis and gourmet specialists – including Fortnum and Mason, grocer to the Queen.
"The likes of Fortnum and Mason have customers coming in spending a couple of hundred pounds on a wee basket of stuff," says Will (51). "We got our first order from them in January, just when we thought we wouldn't be so busy. September to Christmas had been the busiest time for us but we're never slack now."
The Abernethys – it's originally a Scottish name – live and work on Allison's family farm, where they keep 100 sheep. It was Allison's father, Norman Kerr, who taught Will how to make butter three years ago, when a bout of ill-health prevented him from doing his own bit of churning at country fairs. He used a small pot-bellied 1930s metal churner, which now stands in the corner of the converted kitchen in the former granny-flat Will and Allison use as their mini factory. The space is immaculate and light-filled; a second room with three huge fridges is equally pristine.
"Dad's very into vintage stuff, linen-making and old farming ways, and he began making butter because the art had died out," says Allison, a former nurse. "He'd go to fairs and make a wee bit to show how it's done and people went mad for it. So when he wasn't well we took over, then we got Environmental Health out and did all the training needed and got the certificates. We haven't stopped since."
The fresh-faced couple married 25 years ago after meeting as teenagers at a Young Farmers club. They have two children – Laura (21), a student of Politics and History at St Andrews University in Scotland (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's alma mater), and Stuart, who's studying animal care in Downpatrick.
The picture of health, with good complexions, the Abernethys are a walking rebuttal to those who might claim dairy is bad for us. Indeed, several experienced nutritionists follow the Abernethys on Twitter and have remarked on the health benefits of their butter. Moreover, recent research published in the British Medical Journal has identified the health benefits of dairy produce from grass-fed cows, which has been found to protect against colon cancer.
Northern Ireland produces the most yellow butter in the world because cows here are mainly fed green grass, which gives the milk high carotene content. The Abernethys have two 40-litre churns of pasteurised cream from fresh milk delivered every morning by Draynes dairy farm in Lisburn. Their Border Collie, Fudge, trots along with Will every morning to collect the churns from the bottom of their lane.
"Having the cream already separated from the milk takes a lot of the work out of the churning," says Will. "They'd have to do it themselves in the old days by letting it sit for a day for the cream to rise to the top. We use cream because it's already 40% butter fat – milk's only 4% butter fat, which would mean it would take an awful lot longer to make.
"I'll have a bit of breakfast first before filling the butter churn with the cream. It can be monotonous enough work, so I like to have Radio Ulster on while I work."
Before taking up butter-making, Will milked and looked after cows for local farmers for 30 years. Allison worked full-time as a nurse at the local health centre in Dromara until three months ago. She now works full-time at home, wrapping and labelling the butter, organising deliveries and doing the administration. Will does the heavier work, operating two different-sized churns – the five-litre alloy one with a handle at its side from the 1930s, which he uses to make one kilo of butter, and a modern steel 40-litre one for bigger orders. He pours in two litres of cream at room temperature and turns the handle, which rotates a paddle inside. The cream slowly separates into buttermilk and butter fat, which will curdle before sticking together after about seven minutes.
Bread bakers like my aunts will be dismayed to hear he throws out the buttermilk left after churning, but he has good reason.
"I'd have to repasteurise it – it's too expensive and there's not enough demand for it these days," he says. "I pour away the buttermilk and put what's left into a stainless steel bowl and mash it under cold water with wooden pats three or four times. This washes away all traces of buttermilk. The last stage is to add in a tablespoon of salt – ordinary table salt – and that's it. One customer asks for it salt-free – he compares it to tea without sugar."
I can taste the salt in that morning's butter on the wheaten bread Allison serves with tea in her smart dining room. It's just the right amount, unlike the overwhelming saltiness of some traditional old-style country butter, which the Abernethys shy away from. Equally, Allison has no time for unsalted spreads, the very mention of which bring a grimace to her open, pretty face as we tuck in to a plate of pastries after the bread. I'm glad for my waistline that there's no Abernethy Fudge on the table; it's more of a sideline for the couple and is made to a secret recipe Allison lets me in on, but which I'm not allowed to divulge.
Allison's work begins an hour after Will breaks off the butter from the churn a dollop at a time, weighing it to 125g. He flattens it into a rectangle on one of the pats and with the other, rolls the butter into portions about the size of Cadbury mini chocolate rolls, but heavier. Two litres of cream produces seven rolls, which Will puts on a tray of greaseproof paper in the fridge for an hour to harden it for packaging. He can produce up to 400 rolls a day, hence the long working hours.
The demand for Abernethy Butter – particularly in Michelin-starred restaurants – owes much to the social networking dynamo of Twitter. The couple follow their favourite chefs on it and when well-respected Dromore chef Derek Creagh of the Salty Dog tweeted about them after discovering their butter in his local butcher's, Heston Blumenthal tracked them down to supply his Fat Duck chain, as did Marcus Wareing of The Berkeley in Knightsbridge and The Gilbert Scott in London.
Abernethy Butter is now also being served in the prestigious Gibson Hotel in Dublin and most recently in Seven Park Place in London, bringing their overall outlets to 100 and counting.
One of their most recent customers is the exclusive World cruise liner, which recently docked in Belfast.
"They gave me a tour of the ship – it was unbelievably luxurious," says an awed Allison. "You have to have £10m in the bank to get on so they're all trillionaires, with old money. They don't want celebrities. They even have a full-sized tennis court and there's our butter on the tables of the half-dozen fancy restaurants on board!
"I suppose our ambition would be to be millionaires but it's not really about the money. It's what we get out of this; we're our own bosses now and every week there's something new. It's our passion and we meet lovely people through it. With Laura and Stuart away now, it's great for us and we've made some good friends. Dad's really thrilled for us – the butter has come a long way since his wee fairs."
Why it's pure gold...
What leading local chefs have to say about Abernethy Butter:
"Abernethy is the best butter I've come across – traditionally made and perfectly balanced, creamy, slightly salty – absolutely delicious!
Derek Creagh, head developmental chef, Finnebrogue
"Allison and Will Abernethy live, work and breathe the original meaning of artisan food producer, creating a product which speaks volumes for their passion for hand-churned butter."
Niall McKenna, owner and head chef, James Street South, Belfast
"To have a world-class product such as Abernethy Butter right here in Ulster is an absolute pleasure for chefs and food lovers."
Chris Bell, head chef, River Room restaurant, Galgorm Manor, Ballymena
For details on Abernethy Butter, visit abernethybuttercompany.com