By Clive Dalton
The hoose cuw
Before the days of supermarkets, fridges, powdered and tinned milk, every ootbye farm up the North Tyne and Rede had a ‘hoose cuw’, as well as a heifer timed to calve when the main cow was dried off. Shepherds and hinds were allowed to keep a cow as part of their job, and it got free grass and the pleasure of the farm Galloway bull free of charge too.
‘Milkin the cuw’ was part of the twice-daily routine – generally by the women folk, who were very proficient – and the cows appreciated that. The job could also be the Hind’s job or the Daft Laddie after his milking skills had been learned and approved.
After the ‘tit pullin’ the milk warm milk was taken to ‘the dairy’, which was usually an area in the big cool darkened pantry. The flagstone floor, big thick bench of stone, slate or concrete, and small louvered window, kept the temperature cool in summer.
The milk was left to stand in large shallow enamel dishes for the cream to rise to the top, before being skimmed off and accumulated over a few days until there was enough to be worth making butter. Ancient milk setting bowls were made of wood.
If butter making became a serious business, then it was worth buying a mechanical separator
Churning to make butter which could be timed with the weekly walk or trap ride to the local village where regular orders were delivered or aimed at the local market day. Cheese was also made but in much less quantity.
The new-calved cuw
Everyone looked forward to the cuw calvin – for a number of reasons. First, there’d be fresh milk again in abundance, and all that went with it. Then there’d be a calf to rear and add to the yearly income. Then there was the colostrum or first milk of the cow after calving, that nature has designed to be rich in protein, energy and antibodies, which protected the calf from any diseases in the environment.
You would have thought that Mother Nature would have designed mammals so that the foetus was loaded with antibodies from the dam through the bloodstream during pregnancy, rather than risk the hazardous business of getting them into the calf at the first suckle after birth. The calf’s gut is only permeable to these large antibody molecules for the first 6-12 hours after birth, so if the calf misses out on colostrum, chances of survival and good health later are greatly reduced. Nature works in wonderous ways!
But a special feature of the milk from the newly-calved cow was ‘the beestings’. ‘Beestings’ is a word common in Scotland and parts of England with some modification for example to “beestlings” in the Yorkshire dales.
Beestings (colostrum) is more like thick cream than milk, and is a rich golden yellow, and is thickest in the first couple of days (four milkings) after which it gets thinner. In some cases this colostrum is more like glue, and regularly had streaks of blood in it from the oedema of the rapidly expanding udder tissue!
But the thought of making colostrum into anything for the table is unimaginable to many modern folk and the word “beestings” doesn’t help.
To New Zealanders, colostrum is definitely not for eating - it’s for feeding calves or pigs. The very thought of eating it is too much to contemplate. But things have changed recently with the recognition of colostrum as a ‘Neutraceutical’ (health food) for which there is a new and expanding export market. It’s most popular with body builders, so if such folk reckon it has something, then that will be good for what used to be considered stock feed. It’s certainly expensive enough when packaged and aimed at this market, developed mainly in Asia and Japan.
Over recent years, New Zealand Dairy Companies have paid farmers a premium for colostrum in spring, instead of penalising any who dared to sneak it in the vat before four days (8 milkings/cow and 10/heifer) after calving. In the past dairy factories making milk powder hated colostrum, as it clogged up the driers when heated and had to be chipped off the drier plates.
In the old days, after the calf had had its first feed, the mass of surplus beestings were made into ‘beestins puddin’, which was very much like a junket or very light custard. You certainly didn’t have to chow it – you could just "suck it doon”. There were plenty of different recipes which were passed on over time, and the ones below were taken from and old recipe book published by the UK Farmer’s Weekly in 1946 (the weekly is now part of the internet, with blogs an all!). Notice the instructions about which day’s milk was best to use, after the cow calved.
Beestings – a note from Mrs H.M.Watkins, Wrexham
We do not use the very first milking, as it is so deep in colour. I always test it by putting a little on a saucer in the oven. If it sets too thick, I put a pint of milk to 3 pints of beestings (or in proportion, according to the way it sets), sprinkling a little pudding spice on top, and add a little sugar. Let is simmer in the oven but not boil, just as if you were making an egg custard. I make tarts with it just as one would make egg custard tarts.
Fruit beestings – from Mrs E.J. Cotty, Devonshire
Take the beetings at third milking of the cow and set in a pan. After 6-12 hours, skim off about 2 pints of the rich head of the milk. Take a good sized pie dish, grease well. Mix 1oz cornflour, with a little milk in a basin until smooth.
Put the remainder of the milk into a pie dish. Add 1oz of sugar (brown if possible), 2 oz sultanas or currants (prunes, chopped would do). Then stir in the cornflour and bake in a moderate oven until golden brown and set.
When served, the fruit will be in a layer on the bottom.
Beestings cheese – from Mrs McLennan or Argyllshire
Fill a pudding dish with milk from the second milking; stir in 2 tablespoons of syrup and mix well. Spread on top the cream from the first milking, put into a moderate oven and bake until firm to touch and golden brown.
This cheese cuts into smooth, creamy slices and is short and free in texture.
Beestings curd – from Mrs Duckles, Yorkshire
2 pints new milk
1 breakfast cup water
1 breakfast cup beestings
Heated quickly on a bright fire, makes about one and a half pounds of delicious curd.
One teacup of beestings is equal to 2 eggs in Yorkshire pudding. And do they rise!
Beestings custard – from Mrs Burkett, Cumberland
Take 1 pint of beestings milk; 2 tablespoons of sugar; pinch of salt. Add salt and sugar to milk in pie dish. Stir well. Cook in moderate oven until set.
The result is a delicious custard-like pudding; but much depends on the correct heat.
Beesting puddings – from Mrs Duckles, Yorkshire
Take a dozen small puddings, allow 3 tablespoons batter to each tin (cake tin size). Tins should be warm, bottoms just covered with melted fat. I use:
2 breakfast cups flour
1 breakfast cup beestings
2 tablespoons water
1 level tablespoon salt
Half a pint of milk
Mix the flour and salt; pour in the beestings and water. Beat out lumps, thin down with milk (separated or milk and water) to creamy mixture. Bake in a hot oven for 20 –30 minutes. As with Yorkshire puddings, do not open the oven door till they should be ready – it only wastes heat and makes the puddings go flop.
In case you should be tempted to use more beestings – Don’t! You will get better results with less if it’s the first time you have tried them.
Beestings tarts – from Mrs Johnson, Yorkshire
Add 2 parts beestings to 1 part water and stir over a fire or stove till it thickens. Don’t let it boil. To this add 3 eggs, half a pound of sugar, a little nutmeg, currants (sultanas will do), a little marmalade instead of peel. Add if possible a small quantity of rum.
Line tins or saucers with paste and put a good filling of the mixture and you’ll find this delicious.
Beestings “new cheese” – from Miss Christian Milne, Aberdeenshire
I wonder how many country women make that old fashioned farmhouse dainty “new cheese”?
For this you fill a pudding dish with milk from the second milking of a newly calved cow. Heat 2 tablespoons of syrup and add, stirring until thoroughly blended. Remove cream carefully from first milking and use the “top” cheese.
Bake in a moderate oven until golden brown and firm to touch. (An oven suitable for a baked custard is just right). New cheese make thus, cuts into smooth, creamy slices, and is short and free in texture. Served with cream, it is a delicious change from the usual milk pudding.
Note – a too intense oven ruins the texture of new cheese, making it tough and leathery instead of tender.
To the ladies who contributed these recipes (where every they may be now), and to Margaret Dagg, Hott farm, Tarset, Northumberland who was wise enough to keep her old recipe book, and kind enough to send me the recipes.
If you have any more beestings recipes, I'd love to have them for the blog.