Little House in the Big Woods: Bread, Butter, and Honey

Book:
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams
1971, Harper & Row
august
August is the month of first harvests. The 1st of August is Lammas, or Loaf Mass, when people used to bless loaves of bread made from the first crops.  Although this is in some ways the longest, sleepiest month of Summer, we are already looking forward to Autumn, and gathering in the rest of the harvest.grain1If you go out into the fields now you can see what is growing.  Around here it is oats and barley.

oats & barley
Top: oats. Bottom: barley.

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Nowadays we don’t usually see the full process that turns these grains into flour.  In Little House in the Big Woods, however, harvest, like everything else, was very hands on.  In the chapter entitled “Harvest”, it describes how Pa Ingalls harvested the oats.
harvest1

Pa Ingalls and Uncle Henry helped each other with their harvests.  They cut the oats with a tool called a cradle, tied each bundle with a band of oats, stood five bundles together and then covered with two more bundles, spreading the stalks to make a roof and shelter the five underneath.  This is called a shock (as in, “the fodder’s in the shock”.).  All this had to be done before dark when the dew would fall.
grain2
The main drama of this chapter is how the disobedient Cousin Charley gets stung a by a load of yellow jackets.  However, I think the grueling description of the harvesting of the oats is more interesting.  In the next chapter, “The Wonderful Machine,” Pa sends for a newfangled horsepowered separator to help with the wheat harvest.  Pa, who is “all for progress”, is very pleased with this modernisation.

farmhouse cookery
Fodder in the shock! And a harvest picnic including bread & butter. From Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from the Country Kitchen, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, 1982

harvest2But while the oat harvest was hard work, I’m sure the result was much appreciated.
One of the best aspects of the Little House books, and one which is perhaps best enjoyed by older readers, is the detailed description of life back then.  It really is fascinating to see the hard work which used to go into every little part of life.  It provides useful perspective on our own lives.

Little House in the Big Woods is a fun and interesting read.  It is a bit long, with some technical/historical language, so it would be difficult for under eights to read on their own.  Reading with an adult would also be helpful to deal with some of the harsher realities of that time period.  For example, Laura’s family  lives with the danger of wild animals actually killing them, there is a quite detailed description of hog butchery, and there is also corporal punishment, when Laura is hit with a strap for slapping her sister.  But I think all of these things are not negatives in and of themselves, they just have to be discussed and put into the context of the time period and situation.

Personally, I am certainly not going to be harvesting my own grain anytime soon.  My family doesn’t usually eat bread, either.  But if you are going to, homemade is best, because you can choose what goes into it.  And more important than the bread, to my mind, is what goes on top.
LHBWspreadbook, bowl, butterOne of the nicest things to go on bread is honey, and that is also something that the Ingalls family harvested for the Winter.  In the chapter “Summertime”, Pa finds a bee tree, and comes running back to grab his ax, the two wash tubs, and all the pails and buckets they have.  He has to scare a bear away first, but he then is able to chop down the tree and split it open, and bring home lots and lots of honeycomb.  It should be remembered that store-bought sugar was a real luxury in those days, so everyone must have been very excited to have all that honey!

Laura is sorry for the bees, but Pa says that he has left lots of honey there, and there was another hollow tree nearby.  The bees would take the old honey, turn it into new, and store it up for the winter.
honeyIf you can it’s best to buy local, raw honey, that still has all of its goodness.  Honeycomb is a bonus!
honeycomb on toasthoneycomb on toast2Honey is really lovely with butter, and that is another thing which the Ingalls family had to make all by themselves.  This time it was Ma Ingalls who did all the work.  The chapter “Winter Days” describes what happened every Thursday, which was the day of the week for churning.  Because it takes place in Winter, the cream wasn’t yellow as it was in Summer (when the cows were eating fresh grass).  Because Ma liked everything to be pretty, she colored the butter with a carrot that she grated on the bottom of a pan that Pa had punched full of nail-holes for her.  She put the grated carrot into hot milk, poured it into a cloth, and squeezed the yellow milk into the crockery churn full of cream which had been put it by the stove to warm.  After that Laura and Mary eat the grated carrot as a treat!  Next, Ma scalded the wooden churn-dash, put it in the churn, and dropped the churn-cover on top.  She would have to churn for a long time, as the cream began to look grainy, and finally there would be a big lump of butter in buttermilk.  Ma then took out the butter with a wooden paddle, and washed it many times in cold water, working it with the paddle until the water ran clear.  Then the butter was salted.  Ma had a butter-mold with a strawberry and its leaves on the bottom.
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Laura and Mary watched, breathless…while the golden little butter-pats, each with its strawberry on top, dropped on to the plate…Then Ma gave them each a drink of good, fresh buttermilk.

I would love to have a butter-mold!  But even without one you can make butter at home.  And you don’t need a churn either.

Home-made Butter

Ingredients
1/2 pint heavy (double) cream
Salt to taste

Method
There are various ways to churn the butter.  You can use a mixer or a blender, but my preferred method is the good old-fashioned jar.  Just pour your cream into a jar which is big enough to leave at least a third of the jar empty.  Screw the lid on tightly and shake!  It’s a bit of a workout, but it actually only takes a few minutes before you will feel that the cream is not sloshing around anymore.  When you check, you’ll find the cream has thickened right up.  Keep going a little longer, and you will see the cream has become granular.
butter1-2.jpgThis is normal: those are actually tiny grains of butter!  Eventually they will coalesce into larger lumps and a milky-looking liquid. 

butter3
You have your beautiful yellow butter!  Now it’s time to wash the butter, pretty much like Ma Ingalls did.  Pour off the buttermilk into another container.  Don’t throw it away!  You can use it in baking or just drink it (Note: this traditional buttermilk, so it is not sour like the cultured buttermilk you can buy in stores)!  Put the butter in a bowl and add cold water.  Swish and mash the butter around in the water with a wooden spoon.  The water will turn cloudy.  That’s OK, it’s the last of the buttermilk coming out.  Pour the water off and add fresh water.  You may have to repeat this a few times until the water stays clear.  butter3-4.jpg
Pour off the last of the water and your butter is done!  You can salt it to your own taste, then all there is left to do is shape the butter.  Since I don’t have a butter press or mold, I packed it into a silicone cupcake case and left it in the fridge to harden up.  In a couple of hours it was ready.LHBWspread1bread&honeyMaking butter may seem superfluous nowadays, however I can promise you that homemade butter tastes a million times better than store bought!  It is also a fun, easy Science or Home Ec project for kids that doesn’t take more than 20 minutes altogether.
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LHBWspread2

Make some bread to have with your butter and honey, and have a harvest feast.  It tastes even better when you have done the work yourself!grain3
beeRemember to thank the bees!  They need our help!

Brambly Hedge: Rhubarb Crumble

Books:
The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by  Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books

yellowflowersThe other day we went to the first country show of the year.  It’s always a lot of fun, with tractor and hedgelaying displays, dogs, falconry, sheep shearing, sheep herding, and much more.


bh2I was excited to see that the May was in bloom, which means it really is properly Springtime!


Where we live it takes a long time for the warm weather to arrive, and even when it does, you can never trust it to stay nice, so we take advantage of the sunshine whenever we can.  And one of the best ways to do that is to have a picnic, like the mice do in the “Spring Story” in The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge.
BH7The Brambly Hedge stories involve the daily lives of a community of mice.  Kind of like Redwall, but without the fighting and violence.  The edition of Four Seasons that I read has an interesting introduction which includes the author’s description of how she came to write these stories.  She says that one of her favorite pastimes as a child was to observe the tiny lives of little creatures in the grass, which is something that I used to do as well.  Another interesting point is that she cites Arthur Rackham and Leonardo da Vinci as her main influences.  Arthur Rackham is a wonderful illustrator, but it was da Vinci who inspired her architectural and technical interests.
machine
Apparently all the various dwellings and technology in Brambly Hedge was designed to actually work in real life, “apart from the occasional problem of scale.”  Everything the mice use could in theory be provided by the countryside in which they live.
bh3You can see this thought and attention in the lovely illustrations, which are fun to pore over to try to see every little minute detail.
bh5I thought the introduction was very interesting, and while the stories themselves are obviously for younger children, older children who are interested in illustration, writing, or general world building might find it useful.
bh4But on to the story!  “Spring Story” is the tale of what happens in the mouse community on a Spring day which happens to be the birthday of young Wilfred Toadflax.  The rest of the mice conspire to make a surprise picnic for him.  That is the gist of the plot, but the appeal is in the details of the various characters, their homes, and the exciting comestibles they come up with for the picnic.

This chapter is a fun read, and while the text may be difficult for under sevens to read on their own, the pictures are really the star of the show anyway and should be interesting for all ages.  And it would be good inspiration for young children to invent their own world, maybe inspired by watching the minibeasts in the grass.  It is certainly a great inspiration for a picnic.

BH8
The mice seem to really like jam tarts.

Just some of the things described in this story are: bread and bramble jelly, buns, cheese, bramble brandy, hazelnut cake with cream, and primrose puddings.  Bread and jam, buns, cake, and cheese are all great picnic foods.  And it would certainly be interesting to make a primrose pudding! BH6However, without a community of people to carry the picnic, and without access to such ingredients as primroses or clover flour, I think it’s better to pack something simpler.  Here are two picnic menus that can be carried by one person.
picnic2
Picnic 1: Cream Tea
(serves 2 )

  • Small jar of jam
  • Small jar of clotted or thick cream
  • 4 crumpets, toasted
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • A pinch of coarse salt in a screw of wax paper
  • A bottle of raspberry cordial
  • A bottle of May wine

picnic3
Pack in a hamper with two spoons, cloth napkins, and a container for the egg shells.  May wine (or Maiwein or Waldmeisterbowle) is a wine steeped with sweet woodruff which might be difficult to get hold of outside of mainland Europe, plus it is not for the kids, obviously.  You could substitute any other floral drink like elderflower cordial.


picnic4
Picnic 2: Sausages & Crumble
(serves 1 )

  • Italian sausages fried with onions & peppers, and topped with fresh basil
  • Rhubarb crumble cooked in a mini ramekin with a lid
  • Bottle of water or apple juice


Pack the sausages, onions and peppers in a ramekin or tiffin with a flat lid. Put the rhubarb ramekin on top of the other tiffin.  If you don’t have these exact containers you could use any sort of stackable containers.  Put the stacked containers and cutlery (a spork is most useful) on top of a large cloth napkin and tie two corners tightly on top, and then the other two corners over again, like a furoshiki.  This is really convenient and easy to carry.


picnicb
Another thing to consider is entertainment.  In Brambly Hedge, after the picnic the grown-ups napped while the children played hide-and-seek, which is totally valid depending upon the circumstances.
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But you can also bring a book, which is another benefit of having a hamper.

englishfolksongs
English Folk Songs edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin Books Ltd., 2009

I brought a book of folk songs because it seemed appropriate for a country show in May.
robinhood&thepedlarFor the second picnic I packed a rhubarb crumble, which is definitely seasonal and an easy dessert.  This one is grain-free.

Grain-Free Rhubarb Crumble

Ingredients
4 stalks of rhubarb, chopped
2 1/2 Tbsp butter or other fat
1 cup ground almonds
1/3 cup raw honey or sweetener of choice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/3 c. coconut sugar or other coarse sugar
2 Tbsp gooseberry liqueur or gooseberry jam (optional)

Rhubarb has such pretty Springy colors.
Rhubarb has such pretty Springy colors.

Method
Put the chopped rhubarb in a baking dish (you can also put some in little ramekins like I did for the picnic; everything else is the same, it just cooks in about a 3rd of the time).
rhubarbramekin
Dust with the ginger and dot with the honey.  Drizzle over the vanilla and the liqueur or jam if using.  Put the rhubarb in the oven under the grill for 5 minutes, just until it starts to soften a bit.  For the topping, mix the butter into the almond meal with your fingers until it is fully incorporated, then add the sugar.  Sprinkle over the top of your rhubarb.  This makes a soft, English-style crumble, if you prefer crunchy you could add flaked almonds, coconut flakes or oats.  Bake at 175 C or 345 F for 20 to 30 minutes (10 to 15 for a ramekin).  The crumble is done when it is golden and a little bubbly.
rhubarbramekin2


With Summer on the way and a long weekend this week both in the UK and the US, now is a great time to pack up your picnic of choice and go find someplace to enjoy the sun.