Butter and the King’s Breakfast

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I recently ran across an old book of children’s poetry by A.A. Milne, titled When We Were Very Young, that was published in 1924. In it was a poem that reminded me of my love of butter – that’s real butter, I mean – smeared on anything that even vaguely resembles bread—toast, buns, dinner rolls, and pancakes of course, and yes, even cookies and chocolate cake.

The poem is titled “The King’s Breakfast,” and I’ll paraphrase it here because I believe it’s still under copyright.

It starts out one evening when the King asked the Queen if he could have some butter “for the Royal slice of bread” at tomorrow’s breakfast. Well the Queen asked the Dairymaid who decided she’d better “go and tell the cow now before she goes to bed.”

Well the Dairymaid “went and told the Alderney: ‘Don’t forget the butter for the Royal slice of bread.’” But the Alderney was sleepy and suggested that the King be told “That many people nowadays like marmalade instead.” The Dairymaid went back to the Queen, curtsied and apologized and said, “Marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread.”

The Queen went to her husband the King and told him that “Many people think that marmalade is nicer. Would you like to try a little marmalade instead?” This upset the King and he went to bed muttering, “Nobody could call me a fussy man; I only want a little bit of butter for my bread!”

So back to the Dairymaid went the Queen, and back to the shed went that worthy young lady and laid the King’s plight in front of the cow, who said, “There, there! I didn’t really mean it; here’s milk for his porringer, and butter for his bread.”

Next morning the delighted Queen carried the butter to His Majesty who jumped happily out of bed, kissed the Queen and said, “Nobody, my darling, could call me a fussy man – But I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”

It’s a cute poem and it made me curious about the Alderney cow that was mentioned in it, a breed with which I was unfamiliar.

The Alderney, Jersey and Guernsey breeds of cattle each originated on the Channel Island of the same name. These islands are located in the English Channel just off the coast of the northwestern French Region of Normandy and were once part of the lands of William the Conqueror who ruled England after 1066.

Although administered independently, the islands are dependent upon the United Kingdom for defense and foreign affairs. The sparse population of each island has long been very much isolated, not only from the French mainland, but from England and even each other. The main occupations of the islanders were agriculture and fishing, and a separate cattle breed developed on each island, although they were similar in that all were small and fawn-colored and that, even on the island’s scanty pasturage, produced a large quantity of rich milk and yellow cream that was high in butterfat.

The Alderney cow referred to in Milne’s poem was one of those breeds and was from the small [three square mile] island of Alderney, although since most of the cattle from both Jersey and Guernsey were imported into England through the port of Alderney, most all island cattle were known there as Alderneys. When the German Army conquered France during World War II, they occupied and fortified Alderney, as well as the other islands. Most of the approximately 1,500 inhabitants were evacuated to England or to Guernsey, while the bulk of the Alderney cattle were taken to Guernsey as well. Here the cattle from Alderney became bred with the local Guernseys and lost their purebred identity while the ones left behind were butchered by the German troops for beef. The Alderney, which was said to have been “the best butter cow in the world” then ceased to exist as a separate breed.

– Sam Moore

An 1878 painting of a milk maid by Winslow Homer. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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