In all the many varieties of cultured dairy, you add a starter culture, inoculating the milk with the specific species of microbe that produces the result you want. The starter you begin with predicts the product you end up with. It is fascinating to me that there are so many variants to soured milk. In every culture that traditionally used dairy they depended on microorganisms to preserve their milk. Each culture had its own unique version, from cheese to yogurt to sour cream, but the goal was the same—imbue perishable milk with a bit of immortality.
Bonny clabber is another fascinating dairy ferment but it is a little different. It is the product of wild fermentation. You don't inoculate the milk, it inoculates itself. You set the milk out for a few days and let it go. It thickens and curdles. In the end you have something that looks a lot like cottage cheese and tastes very sour and yogurt-ish.
Apparently, clabber came to the southern United States, especially Appalachia, with immigrants from Scotland. The name, “bonny clabber”, is from Gaelic for soured milk. I can imagine that those thrifty, frugal people were unwilling to throw away nutritious milk that had soured in the hot weather (I can relate-raw milk is expensive and I don’t want to waste any of it).
Bonny clabber has died out with the advent of pasteurization. In fact, it's a little difficult to get over the cultural notion that milk that has gone sour, and in the case of bonny clabber, has thickened and curdled, is not ok to eat. Paradoxically, I have no problem enjoying yogurt, kefir, sour cream, or any other more “cultured” dairy ferment. I had a hard time finding much about bonny clabber on the internet. I found a Civil War recipe, which was kind of cool, and Jenny at Nourished Kitchen mentions it when talking about the variety of cultured dairy. Alchemille tried it back in 2009 and I found a mention of it in a book called Scotch-Irish Foodways in America.
find a way to get it into my kids' tummies.
This time I decided to completely jump the shark and see if I could make bonny clabber. I put a quart of sour milk in a mason jar, covered it and set it in what I have come to call my “ferment cupboard”—the cupboard above my range that stays nice and warm. Three days later (that would be this morning), I took it down and opened it. It had curdled into a solid mass and smelled like warm yogurt. I put a little in a bowl and tasted it—wow! Very sour! The texture reminded me a little of custard. It was shiny and thick and white. The cream had risen to the top of the jar and curdled separately, so I spooned that off first. I had read that you can make clabber butter with clabbered cream…now, that’s a thought. The whey breaks out very quickly when you start to spoon out the clabber so I decided to stain some of it off. I used a coffee filter to line my strainer and left it for a couple of hours. It strains a lot slower than yogurt.
I tried it with brown sugar, cinnamon, and cream and it was good…different but good. My 9 year old had it for breakfast and he liked it too. I can’t see us having it very often because it requires a good heaping helping of sweetness to deal with the sour taste, but once in awhile a little bonny clabber might be a nice thing.