Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Is the World’s Best Butter Worth 50 Dollars a Pound?

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We’ve been having a butter discussion here because of the relatively low quality of Canadian butter, something that is possible (and possibly encouraged) by a lack of competition due to Canada’s stringent import controls on dairy. Those import controls do some good (for example, keep out cheap plentiful boving-growth-hormone-saturated daily from the US that would decimate Canadian dairy industry), but also some bad (for example, keep out really superior butter from France, Ireland, and England so that poor-quality butter can thrive in the market). See this article for a discussion of some of the issues. (For example, Canadian dairy farmers feed hydrogenated palm oil to their dairy cows to increase the fat content of the milk.)

But what about really great butter? Alex Halberstadt wrote a good article about it in Saveur in 2017. The article begins:

If you’ve never been in the presence of a day-old calf, they happen to be disconcertingly large. Recently I followed one—the color and size of a golden retriever—as it stumbled around Diane St. Clair’s barn, bleating loudly. Rain pounded on the roof, my boots were spattered with mud, and my neck ached after a five-hour drive. But it hardly mattered. I’d come to this sparsely populated corner of western Vermont to taste the country’s most sought-after butter.

In a tiny creamery just off the barn, St. Clair reached into a refrigerator and took out a pound of her product—four dandelion-yellow balls in a large Ziploc bag. A former New Yorker with no experience in food production, she began making butter almost by accident, after buying a pair of Jersey cows. Wanting an expert opinion, she mailed unsolicited samples to Thomas Keller; he called back to say he wanted to buy all of it, and eventually asked her to acquire more Jerseys. These days, outside several fine-dining restaurants, St. Clair’s Animal Farm butter is only available once a year at the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op and at Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York. The butter comes in the same Ziploc bag, costs $50 a pound, and sells out within hours.

For most of my life I’ve been preoccupied with butter. Of course there are those culinary Bartlebys who believe it to be nothing more than a baking ingredient or, worse, a condiment. Nutritionists continue to dispute its merits. Oh, I could tell you that Tibetans make it into sacred sculptures and the ancient Finns were buried alongside barrels of it, but I won’t. I will tell you, though, that for diehards like me, butter is the purpose of mashed potatoes, scones, and summer corn, the reason that bread exists, the very fulcrum of eating. What moves me about butter is that unlike cheese or pastry, its essence isn’t confected but comes directly from the land. Elaine Khosrova, the author of Butter: A Rich History, described it to me as “a pure presentation of man, land, and beast.” Like oysters and wine, it’s one of the perks of being born on this planet.

My obsession with butter began among identical rows of tenements on the outskirts of Moscow where I grew up in the late 1970s. The groceries in our sparsely populated supermarket aisles ranged from unexciting to barely edible; one of the few exceptions was the fresh rye bread sold every morning in bakeries across the city, especially the dense, chocolate-hued loaves topped with coriander called Borodinsky. Naturally, they required butter. This became the best part of my midday meals, eaten in the school cafeteria under portraits of jowly Politburo chiefs. The slightly sour bread was the foil for the Platonic butter of my memories that opened with bright, creamy sweetness and, after a tangy sour note, faded in a long, lightly nutty finish. The mouthfeel was firm and unctuous but never greasy.

Somehow, as an adult, I began to forget butter. I ate supermarket brands and assumed that my longing was a figment of childhood nostalgia. Then, several years ago, while in Reims, I tasted a butter that obliterated the memory of the very worthwhile Champagnes on the table. It was made by Jean-Yves Bordier in Brittany, and was not imported to the United States. But the experience of Bordier stayed with me. In time, it ignited a determination to recapture the taste I remembered.

Finding a stand-in for the bread of my childhood took no time at all. The crusty miche from Bien Cuit, a bakery near my home in Brooklyn, was a delicious substitute for the Borodinsky. But replicating the butter proved slippery and enigmatic. First, I visited New York’s Russian-Jewish enclave, Brighton Beach, for several specimens made in the land of my birth. I found them in a store with smooth jazz on the speakers and the delightful name of Gourmanoff. Unfortunately, these items turned out to be mixtures of butter and vegetable oil with the texture of margarine. Premium and imported brands from the grocery store didn’t approach the experience I remembered either. Most tasted waxy, grainy, or dull, with no discernible finish.

I knew it was time to get serious. So, several months ago, I delved into the surprisingly contentious thickets of butter connoisseurship. I wanted to understand what drove the most obsessed of its producers, and which criteria they prized. I ate more of it than might be medically advisable. I’d assumed I knew my butter, but here’s what I learned: Sometimes the thing we love is the one we know least of all.

The further I waded into what makes for great butter, the less tractable my search became. Many aficionados insist that culturing—the extra step of allowing the cream to ferment before it’s churned—is the key to deep flavor. Certainly the best cultured butters (sometimes labeled “European-style”) possess a subtle tangy note that can add complexity, but the process does not assure a superior product. Some of the butters I enjoyed most happened to be of the uncultured, or the “sweet cream,” variety.

Some brands tout fat content as the key to quality and print it prominently on their labels. In the U.S., federal regulations require butter to be at least 80 percent fat, a level some insist is too low. But to my surprise, several expensive high-fat butters tasted bland and oily. “As you ramp up fat content, you squeeze out more milk solids,” explained Aaron Foster, owner of the Brooklyn specialty food shop Foster Sundry. “The fat itself is relatively mild, so you get richness at the expense of flavor.”

Then there is the dilemma of salting.  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I should note that this is a PSP (public-service post), since I personally am not eating butter these days. But I know that many readers do, so I thought this would be of interest. (If you also eat ham, check out this video.)

Update: Continuing the butter exploration, read Kristy Mucci’s Saveur article from May 2018:

I’ve been doing personal butter research for years: Several years ago I had butter in Paris (of course) that stopped me in my tracks, and since then I’ve been trying to find anything else to measure up to it. I’ve done several taste tests, I’ve made butter (cultured and not) from every good local cream I could get my hands on, I pick up any new-to-me butter I see, and after all that, I am convinced that there is no better butter in the world than Le Beurre Bordier. Maybe I’m extra sensitive to good butter because I grew up with those spray bottles of the I Can’t Believe It’s Not stuff, but I know I’m not alone in my aggressive enthusiasm. Once you experience the Bordier jolt, you’re changed. You’re hooked.

I know plenty of people who’ve smuggled it back from trips to France, who ask people to smuggle it back for them, and who try to stretch out their contraband butter bricks for as long as possible (and I’ve done all of those things, too). I’ve even gone so far as having it overnighted from a friend in Paris. It’s that good. Bordier recently started popping up in a few restaurants in New York, and it’s now being sold at Le District in New York City’s Financial District, which means you no longer have to stress out about getting it through TSA.

What makes it so special? If you ask the man behind the butter, Jean-Yves Bordier, he’ll say something modest like, “I haven’t invented anything new, I use old methods that respect the land, the animals, and tradition.” Actually, he’s said exactly that—isn’t it delightful and vague and French-artisan-sounding? But the thing Mr. Bordier doesn’t seem to be aware of is that his product makes you look at butter in a completely new way. It’s not just a mildly flavored fat that’s fine on bread, or good to bake with, or extra tasty when it’s browned; it’s a completely special ingredient in it’s own right, this butter can be appreciated the way a good cheese is. It’s got so much character, the texture is noticeably elegant, and once you get some of his flavored butters, you realize this guy is like Willy Wonka for adults who like good food.

The importer who is bringing Bordier to New York sent me some up-close-and-personal intel from a recent visit to the Bordier workshop. Here’s what I’ve learned about how the best butter in the world is made.

It starts with the milk: Bordier only sources milk from local small farmers who use the best farming practices. The cows responsible for Bordier live lovely lives grazing on grass and flowers, and enjoying their environment (no overcrowded and unpleasant factory farms for these guys).

They take their time: A typical brick of butter is made 6 hours after the cow is milked. It takes Bordier three days. For a lot of that time, the cream is culturing and developing flavor.

They knead differently: Regular butter is made on a large scale, in a factory setting that produces a lot of product at high speed. Bordier has a special wooden machine (only one!) called a Malaxeur that the butter is kneaded through, at a slow speed, for a specific amount of time—kneading time depends on the season, but it can be as long as 30 minutes. They say it helps develop . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 4:51 pm

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