A versatile ingredient – and perennial guilty pleasure. We ask dairyman Geoff Bowles how to source, store and serve cream
Cream is the flavour in your coffee and the thickness in your mashed potato; it can turn a simple bowl of fruit into a luxuriant pudding and transform any meal into a celebration.
Whether it’s clotted, whipping or pouring, dairyman Geoff Bowles would argue that cream is the best thing about Jersey milk.
Ivy House Farm in Beckington near Frome in Somerset has been worked by Geoff and his family for over 30 years and he’s run an organic creamery for the past 15, building on expertise passed down through his family. “We started out making cream, then milk, and occasionally we had a surplus of cream, so we dragged my mother in to make butter, because she used to make butter when she was a young ’un,” says Geoff.
Part of the secret to the quality of their cream is that their dairy farm is self-sustaining and organic. The feed for their 160-strong Jersey cow herd is grown on their land, and they process all their own milk into clotted cream, milk, butter and buttermilk.
“We switched to organic around 15 years ago because I thought it was a better way of treating the land,” explains Geoff. “We find that if the cows have a good day with lots of sunshine and grass, the fat content of their milk goes up. When cows are happy, they live longer, and I think you can taste the difference – it’s the genuine article.”
Decades of milking the animals and eating the cream on his cornflakes every day means Geoff knows cream inside and out, and, as he says, “I’ve got the waistline to show for it.”
How do you turn milk into cream?
In nature, cream floats to the top because gravity pushes the heavier milk part downwards, displacing the lighter butterfat globules. We simply speed up this process in a centrifuge. In every milking roughly 5% is butterfat, so we spin off the heaviest 90% and what’s left is half butterfat, half fatless milk – double cream. To make the lower percentage creams we then stir some of the skimmed milk back in.
What makes the different types of cream distinct? There are roughly four types of cream – single, whipping, double and clotted. As basic commodities they’ve been standardised by the industry so that single cream has a minimum content of 18% fat, whipping cream has 35%, double cream has 48% and clotted cream has over 55%.
What’s the process for making clotted cream?
It’s thought that the Lebanese came up with the method for making clotted cream originally. You speed up the separator so that you get more skimmed milk coming out of the centrifuge. What’s left has a higher percentage of fat. Because the cream has a higher fat content, if you were to store it as it is, it would be dry and crumbly and go off. So following the traditional method, the high fat cream is put into stainless steel buckets, which are immersed into a simmering bath for a couple of hours. It turns the cream into a long-lasting, thick, smooth, high-energy, caramelised cream.
When do you sell the most cream?
The country goes mad for cream the week before Christmas. We tend to make brandy creams during Advent – brandy cream, brandy clotted cream and brandy butter, so that it lasts. Pasteurised cream only really has a ten-day shelf life, and we can’t get any more milk out of our cows just because it’s Christmas. But it’s our busiest time by far. In the summertime we find that people buy less of the fuller fat milks we sell, because they drink more cold drinks, but people want cream for their scones, fruit and puddings.
Isn’t cream really bad for us?
I’m not a doctor! Some say it’s good for you and some say it’s bad. The trend over the past few years has been to say that a bit of saturated fat is good for you, which is why butter is becoming more popular again too. I say everything is OK in moderation, and there’s goodness to be had in cream. Jersey milk has 20% more protein, 18% more calcium and less saturated fat than milk from other breeds, so it’s not all bad.
Does the type of cow affect the flavour?
Yes, definitely. We farm Jersey cows and they’re completely different to black-and-white Friesian cows,with a different genealogy and a different make up. They produce a naturally higher fat milk than Friesians. Jersey milk also has a more yellow colour because the cows absorb more carotene from the food they eat.
What’s the difference in taste?
I find that there’s a slight bitterness to clotted cream from Friesian milk that you don’t get from Jersey milk. That might be because Jersey milk is naturally creamier, or it could be linked to the process; most supermarket clotted cream from Friesian milk is set by microwave rather than the traditional simmering method.
How should I store cream?
It’s best to store cream as close to 0°C as you can get without actually freezing it. Cream is a product that’s an ideal medium for bacteria if it gets warm, so you have to store it below 4°C. In your fridge is perfect, but if you can store it at 2°C that’s even better.
Is there a way to freeze cream well?
You can freeze cream without it going lumpy. The lower the fat content the better it freezes, as the thickness affects the speed it freezes. The way to avoid lumpy cream is to freeze it fast. Professionals use CO2 to freeze their cream as quickly as possible. A trick my mum used was to freeze the cream in smaller amounts. She put spoonfuls of clotted cream in sandwich bags and packed frozen peas around them. They freeze faster because they’re smaller, and when they defrost the cream is fine.
How do you make sure the quality is consistent?
Larger dairies make sure their cream always has the same fat content because they’re pooling together lots of milk from different sources and can stick to the standard. We don’t make vatfuls because we’re small so we have a more bespoke approach. Our double cream, for example, usually has two or three per cent more fat than the norm. Of course we graze our cows organically and keeping happy cows is a good way to keep the quality of our cream high.
Where’s the best place to buy cream?
The best place is from farmers directly, at farm shops, if you can. Regardless of what’s on the label, only the farmer is truly able to look you in the eye and tell you that their animals haven’t been mistreated and how the cream was produced. You can get farm-sourced cream from some of the smaller dairies through organic box companies like Abel & Cole, and lots of delis and independent shops stock cream direct from farms too.
How do you know when it will taste great?
If you can, find out whether the milk is piped warm straight from the milking to the creamery and not allowed to go cold and then reheated. Lots of smaller dairies like ours take the cows’ milk straight from the milking parlour to the creamery when it’s warm because we’ve found it keeps the colour, flavour and structure better. It’s worth asking about the pasteurisation process too. Large dairies pasteurise their milk and cream quickly at 85°C. But when you follow Louis Pasteur’s original method you heat the cream slowly up to 65°C and hold it at that temperature for half an hour, which preserves the flavour.
What’s your favourite way to eat cream?
I eat lots of cream. If you make dauphinoise potatoes with cream it’s superb. We eat it on fruit and puddings, of course, but I even put clotted cream on my cornflakes in the morning! My favourite way to eat cream came from a bit of an experiment. We had some clotted cream which had gone too hard, so we turned it into ice cream and ate it with a dollop of clotted cream on top. It’s very good.
Ivy House Farm cream, milk, buttermilk and butter is available from Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Neal’s yard Dairy and Selfridges in London, from independent delis and farm shops in somerset and Dorset, from http://www.farm-direct.com and directly on 01373 831302. Ivy House Farm, Beckington, Frome, Somerset Ba11 6TF.
This feature originally appeared in the April issue of The Simple Things