Abernethy: How a Dromore couple have made butter the stuff of dreams
Abernethy Butter is the 'butter of your dreams' according to food critic Jay Rayner. Joanne Sweeney talks to Allison Abernethy whose father passed on to her his 'gold' making skills
WHEN Nigella Lawson raved about their product on social media and Jay Rayner described it as the "butter of your dreams", the couple behind Abernethy Butter surely knew they could be counted among the artisan food heroes of these shores.
Allison and Will Abernethy produce their famous handmade butter and fudge at Will's family farm among the green rolling hills of Dromara, Co Down.
In what seems to be the result of good fortune, excellent connections and the patronage of some of the top chefs in the UK, the Abernethys have elevated butter – made in the way it used to be in our grandparents' time on farms and smallholdings – to an art form.
Allison, a former nurse, and Will, an ex-dairy farmer, have been feted by the likes of Mary Berry, dined at 10 Downing Street and have met the duke and duchess of Cornwall twice.
They met each other more than 32 years ago at the Annaclone & Magherally Young Farmers Club and are now empty nesters after 28 years of marriage – their daughter Laura (25) is a digital journalist with the Press Association in London and their son Stuart (21) is studying veterinary nursing in Scotland.
"Nobody still makes butter the way we do," Allison tells me just after turning out a fresh batch of buttery Abernethy fudge. It takes her about an hour to make about 20 bags of the sweet stuff.
While the butter is no longer hand-churned due to the physical energy needed to keep up with demand, it is churned constantly by a motor, before being handwashed, salted and patted into the now distinctive ridged curls by Will and his team of four at the farm, made from cream from a single herd of dairy cattle resident at Draynes farm in Lisburn.
Making butter was something that the Abernethys had been doing for years for their own consumption, having been earlier schooled by Allison's father Norman Kerr, who made it at his family farm.
"My father used to do hand-churned butter demonstrations at agricultural shows but it was more to show how butter was made years ago as people were interested and nostalgic about it," explains Allison.
"One day he was to do a show at Glenarm Castle and took ill. He asked us to go up and do the demonstration for him rather to let the people down. So we went up and sold the butter we had made at the end, just to cover the costs really.
“However, this man came over – and to this day I don't know who he was – and basically told us what a great product we had, how pure and natural it was and how the way it was made was so different, and encouraged us to start marketing and selling it.”
The couple did some research and realised that the stranger talked sense and decided to change the granny flat attached to their farmhouse, where Will's mother used to live, into a production unit in 2010.
That was the official start of Abernethy Butter and the couple began to get it stocked in some local butcher's and food shops, including Arcadia in south Belfast.
"We thought we would do it and the demonstrations as a bit of a hobby,” says Allison. “Then one day about a year later I got a call and it was Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. I actually thought it was somebody pulling my leg and he must have thought I was a bit rude as I didn't believe him at first."
It turned out it was the real Heston Blumenthal, whose aforementioned Berkshire restaurant was voted the best in the world in 2005, and he did want to try Abernethy Butter as he was looking for a handmade butter for his restaurant.
"Once we began to supply Heston, that really changed the whole dynamics of the business because if you are good enough to supply Heston, you are good enough to supply everybody,” Allison says.
Having been 'discovered' by Heston Blumenthal, news of Abernethy Butter, well, spread. It was subsequently used by Marcus Wareing at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the swish Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, and it was also taken on by London's upmarket Fortnum & Mason food emporia.
Blumenthal initially found out about it on Twitter through the recommendation of one of his former chefs, Derek Creagh, now of Harry's Shack in Portstewart. Creagh discovered it while buying a pie in Quail's Butchers in Dromore one day and began to use it in The Salty Dog in Bangor, making him the first chef to cook with the butter.
Just last month, Nigella Lawson declared on Twitter that the butter was "everything". When Guardian food writer Jay Rayner then rhapsodised about it in a review of Nobel restaurant in Holywood, Co Down, writing, "The butter round here ought to be at the heart of its own religion and is now at the heart of mine. Get hold of some Abernethy, with its dense creaminess, and softness and salt. It’s the butter of your dreams or, at the very least, your hopes," the Abernethy website was inundated with inquiries and orders.
Allison and Will have just found out that their turnover increased by 57 per cent last year, making 2015/2016 their best year to date.
The way that butter has transformed their lives is not wasted on the Abernethys.
“Sometimes we lie in bed at night and think, 'Did that actually happen? Did we actually meet that person?” says Allison. “We've been over to London and met Marcus Wareing, been at 10 Downing Street and met Mary Berry and it’s a bit mad. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my goodness, I'm going to meet James Martin’ and we've met Prince Charles and Camilla twice.
“As much as I loved nursing, I never would have had these experiences but you just think sometimes, this is unreal.”
She says that the couple, who work and live together, get on famously in the business “99 per cent of the time – although I’m sure there’s times Will could see me far enough”.
Their main method of relaxation these days is taking long walks several times a week and the odd weekend break away.
Allison is adamant, despite the demands of the business, that Abernethy will continue to be ‘special’ and never mass-produced.
“It will never grow too big as we will never let it grow too big,” she stresses. “We've turned down supermarkets because we couldn’t make enough butter for them but it's not special when it’s in those places anymore. We would rather support all the local delis, butchers, restaurants and food shops and keep it special.”
:: For local stockists of Abernethy Butter or fudge and an online shop, visit www.abernethybuttercompany.com