Making Ghee in the Valley
Story and Photos by Nikki Gardner
By the light of August’s Sturgeon Moon, Daniel Rainwater heaves 125 pounds of butter onto a cutting board. A candle made of ghee is lit and placed on the shiny metal counter in a commercial kitchen in Greenfield where Full Moon Ghee, a small-batch artisanal ghee company, is based.
As the company’s alchemist, Rainwater works alone at this stage, slicing unsalted butter from High Lawn Farm (Lee, MA) into thick wedges before transferring it into pots for an overnight cook. From 8pm to 8am, the butter melts, separates from the milk solids, and turns into ghee, also known as clarified butter. A lactose-free, shelf-stable, and high-heat cooking oil, ghee dates back to ancient India where it has been celebrated for its taste, nutritional benefits, and healing properties.
In the morning, founder Hannah Jacobson-Hardy and accounts manager and recipe developer Colette Garrigues join Rainwater to assist with filling and labeling the jars. Each sets to work: Garrigues makes her specialty ghee flavors which include Coco’s Cacao, Maple, and the latest, Rosemary Garlic. Jacobson-Hardy sets up the jars for labeling.
Once cooled, the butter naturally separates into three distinct layers: Foam rises to the surface, the clarified butter floats in the middle, and the milk solids sink to the bottom. Rainwater skims and discards the top foamy layer from the pots and then strains the remaining clarified butter through fine butter muslin to collect the milk solids before pouring golden ghee into an assortment of jars. Jacobson-Hardy seals, labels, and boxes them for distribution to stores and farmers markets.
The shimmering ghee has a high smoke point, tolerating heat up to 485°F (higher than butter and coconut oil, which both burn at 350°), and boasts a rich, sweet, slightly nutty flavor enhanced (according to Ayurvedic science) by the qualities of the full moon, considered a time of heightened essence, vitality, and expansion.
“Half of this whole business is educating people on the health benefits of ghee,” says Rainwater.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, ghee is used as a condiment, cooking oil, and superfood (believed to stimulate digestion, aid in nutrient absorption, and reduce inflammation, especially in the gut). Within this tradition, ghee is also thought to lubricate joints, optimize skin and eye health, and alkalize the entire body.
In 2014, the trio met as volunteers at Kripalu Yoga Center where ghee was a regular staple in the dining hall. After Kripalu, Jacobson-Hardy moved back to her hometown, Northampton, where she started an herbal practice, Sweet Birch Herbals, creating a line of herbal salves, creams, elixirs and infused oils. She and Garrigues rented a place together, where Rainwater came to stay. He made small batches of ghee which they used in scrambled eggs, stir-fried kale, and coffee. Friends tried the ghee, loved it, and asked for more.
“There always seemed like there was this one gap in New England with oil,” says Jacobson-Hardy. “I thought, ‘We have cows that make butter and cream. If we turn it into ghee, it burns like another oil, and we can close the gap.’”
In May 2015, Jacobson-Hardy brought a dozen 4-ounce Mason jars of ghee to Northampton’s Tuesday Market to test the market. All 12 jars sold, not just the first time, but week after week. People kept asking for more. They increased their supply, hired a designer, and moved production to Greenfield.
The following year, Garrigues went to India and Cambodia to travel while Rainwater and Jacobson-Hardy continued to make ghee. Jacobson-Hardy flew to Delhi in February and stayed with Garrigues for a month to research the history and culinary uses of ghee in both home and industrial kitchens as well as its place in ceremonies. They toured farms; enrolled in Ayurvedic cooking classes where they made kitchari, curries, dahl, and naan; and knocked on village doors to study when and how locals make ghee.
In Dharamsala, a young man invited them into his family’s home. His grandmother makes ghee from the milk of their two cows, by first making cultured cream, churning it into butter, and then making ghee. Others villagers make their ghee during a waxing moon, when the cycle of nature offers vitality and expansion—since the grass contains more water content thereby nourishing the cows who feed on it.
“I like that part. It’s more abstract and you don’t have to know everything,” says Jacobson-Hardy. “There’s a kind of mystery that supersedes the scientific part of my brain.”
The act of making ghee is a sattvic practice, a time for working with intention and quality, which is how the three view the ritual of preparing ghee.