Made in Maine

sylvia.jpgAt our store, The Green Spot, in Maine, we seek out locally made, unusual products like freshly gathered honey, artisan maple syrup or rare apple cider made with heirloom apples. But my favorite is a handmade butter that is such a treat melted with lobsters, slathered on the breads that we bake or the sugar-and-gold corn picked that morning. Over the years we have had several butter makers but undeniably Sylvia Holbrook’s was the best. Sylvia had been making butter for 63 years when we found her. She lives in the small hamlet of North New Portland almost 2 hours from our store on a ramshackle farm. She is a pistol – a thin energetic women in her 80’s that has made butter every day of her 63-year career.

The thing that makes Sylvia’s butter so different from all others is that she know the importance of pasturing her cows so they have a diet of fresh grass and hay from her own fields which gives it a depth of flavor like nothing else and as Spring turns into Summer the butter takes on an intense yellow color that glows through the white parchment paper. Her butter is not just lovingly made, it is what fresh is all about! Sylvia didn’t just make the butter she milked her own Jersey cows, cut her own hay and went around in her vintage truck to drop off the orders to local stores. She made butter the old fashioned way – the proper way which means leaving the cream over night to clabber. This develops “flavor”, letting the natural bacteria in her environment grow in the cream just enough to enhance the taste, they call it “cultured” butter now, back then it was what made her butter taste so different from everyone else’s. Some of the other butter makers let their cream clabber too long and get a bit rancid or “over ripe” flavor which would increase the yield, not Sylvia, she knew just how long to ripen her cream just by glancing at it.

Sylvia married her love and moved to his family’s farm as a teenager out in the middle of nowhere, it was a large farm with a big farm house that connected to a milking room and that connected to a large cow barn. Everything connected so one did not have to go outside in the harsh Maine Winter storms and the cows were under cover which helped a lot for the twice daily milking. When she and her new husband arrived at her new home from their brief honeymoon they planted a Black Walnut tree to symbolize their new love. As Sylvia would tell you” if the tree died we were doomed” – a bold thing to do because that kind of tree is not indigenous to that area of Maine but instead the tree has flourished in a little corner where it was lovingly planted many years ago. The Walnut tree yields a small bucket of walnut every other year which Sylvia painstakingly cracks, roast and makes Christmas walnut cookies for her family and the people at the town office.

sylviabarn.jpgSylvia gets up at 4 a.m. to milk her 8 Jersey cows.  She feeds and hauls water for them, then gets to work churning her butter. First she pours yesterdays cream into an electric glass churn and makes tea and breakfast for herself, feeds all her cats, listening for the change in sound from the electric motor indicating that the cream is starting to separate. When this happens it starts to be too hard on the motor and must be finished by hand in her antique wooden churn. 

With her strong arms and butter soft hands Sylvia transfers the yellow blob of almost made butter to the churn with the wooden paddles and starts her daily task of turning the handle, pouring fresh cold well water into the churn to wash the buttermilk out of the butter, pouring and draining until the water runs clear. She then transfers the butter onto a bread board and adds just the right amount of salt and kneads that in, takes out her hand carved butter mold that has been soaking in cold water and grabs a handful of butter and pushes it into the mold, runs a knife over the top to cut away the excess of which there never is much. Once she removes the mold the squares of butter go on to wooden boards and are piled in racks in her many spare home refrigerators to firm up. 

She does more chores for a few hours, fires up her wood cook stove, makes biscuits and lunch and awaits her son’s arrival. After lunch she hand-wraps the butter in parchment paper that she orders in from the farm store and writes her name, address and telephone number in the most precious old-style writing that makes you smile and piles her bright yellow ingots into her many freezers.

We used to sell Sylvia’s butter at our store by the 250 pound batch every week until the the state of Maine hired a “dairy” expert at the Department of Agriculture who decided that Sylvia could no longer have a license because she had did not have a cement floor in her milking room and didn’t have commercial refrigeration and put her out of business, at least for a while...

She was devastated and so were her 200 or so customers! She stopped for a couple of weeks and then one day she decided that all she had to do was make butter before all the silly state inspectors even got up and went to work. She continues to this day making butter before 8 a.m. and after 5 a.m. and delivering it in her old truck under cover of the dark sky of Maine....


Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.

The Green Spot
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Photographs by Lauren Shaw