A beastly kind of tart

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A mother cow and her calf. Mum produces ‘beastlings’, otherwise known as bovine colostrum, in the first days of the calf’s life

As is often the case when I’m looking back at my dad’s columns from 40 years ago, I have come across a word that is new to me, but that has been used in various ways in the north for many years.

That word is ‘beastlings’. At first glance, those unfamiliar with it might think it refers to ‘little beasts’ and indeed, there is a connection, but in the context in which my dad was writing it was something else.

In his column from 14th April 1979 a reader had contacted him about the word. At first, Dad reminded us of a similar word, ‘beatlings’, which were the toasted scraps of fat that were eaten with salt on pig killing days.

But ‘beastlings’ referred to the first milk of a cow that has just calved, before the normal milk comes in, otherwise known as bovine colostrum. When my dad was young, this creamy yellow milk was considered too rich for the newborn, and so the farmer’s wife would instead use it for curd, or beastling puddings.

It makes me wonder why a cow would produce milk that was too rich for its own young. We know that colostrum in mammals contains essential antibodies that help to fight infections and bacteria, and that it is full of nutrients which promote growth and give a baby a healthy start in life. So why was it considered too rich for the newborn calves? Maybe someone reading this knows the answer.

Dad grew up in and around Eskdale on the North York Moors, and there it was a custom to give a bottle full of ‘beastlings’ to friends and neighbours who would then turn it into various desserts, such as rum pudding or cheesecake, which Dad recalls his grandmother calling ‘chissuck’. It seems using colostrum in this way is not unique to this country, and I have found recipes from all over the world for various curd desserts and hard cheeses with this milk as its main ingredient.

There was also a Yorkshire superstition associated with the bottle in which the ‘beastlings’ was delivered. Recipients had to return the bottle, unwashed, to the original owner, otherwise some misfortune would befall the calf.

I do have access to a phenomenal resource of information, and decided to consult it on this occasion to find out more about ‘beastlings’. I am, of course, talking about my mum.

When I asked her, she did know what ‘beastlings’ was, but her family, who came from Lealholm, referred to it as ‘bislings’, and her own mother used it to make ‘bisling pudding’, which was rather like a steamed pancake which they ate with golden syrup.

My own research has revealed a number of alternative spellings. I looked up ‘beastlings’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it wasn’t there. However, ‘beestings’ was, and it is another name for bovine colostrum. Other searches threw up ‘beastings’, ‘beeslings’, ‘bisnings’, ‘beastung’ and ‘beisten’, the latter coming from Scotland. I’m not sure from which parts of the country the other words originate, but I presume the spelling is linked to how it is pronounced in the differing regions.

My mum also mentioned that her mother used ‘bislings’ to make Yorkshire curd tarts. These are not to be confused with custard tarts, but are a particular delicacy of our fair county. They are more like a baked cheesecake (or ‘chissuck’), with currants, allspice and sometimes flavoured with rosewater.

The Yorkshire curd tart was a particularly favourite of my dad’s and as a child we would go to Helmsley on market days where a trip to the bakery to pick one up was obligatory. Traditionally, this tart would be baked for celebrations around Whitsuntide, which is the week following Whitsun (or Pentecost), the seventh Sunday after Easter.

I spent a lot of time on a farm in my youth and, as on many North Yorkshire farms, the farmer referred to his cows as ‘beasts’. Therefore it is not a far stretch to assume some may also have referred to their calves as ‘beastlings’, although I can’t remember him using that particular word. However, it is just possible that a quirky term like ‘beastlings’ for bovine colostrum comes from this connection with the young beasts.

Can any readers remember using the colostrum in the ways I describe above or, in fact, still use it to this day?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on12th April and the Gazette & Herald on 10th April 2019

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