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Butter is one of those things that is everywhere, but it usually only registers when you encounter a truly exceptional version. In the form of an awe-inspiring butter sculpture or tasty pat with a warm slice of bread, great butter commands attention.
Julia Child famously said "With enough butter, anything is good.” Therefore, this newsletter should be excellent.
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Butter has existed for more than 10,000 years. Author Elaine Khosrova in Butter: A Rich History posits that its early production was an accidental jostling of bags of room temperature sheep’s milk. This feat was reproduced by the noted historians in Episode 6, Season 25 of The Amazing Race, who made it look so hard that it is difficult to assume something like that could happen by accident.
The first written account of butter making is from a 4,500 year old tablet. At the time, butter production was concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East, largely with a base of yak, goat or sheep’s milk. At the time, butter was considered a ritual offering.
The production of butter has changed little over the years. Milk (commonly cow) is separated into milk and cream. In the past this was done by letting the milk sit and settle in an open vessel. Naturally occurring lactic acid bacterias would ferment the milk slightly and lower the pH levels of the fats, softening their cell walls. Other methods of preparing milk for butter production include adding salt to milk (popular in North America) or commercial production, which takes pasteurized and homogenized milk and inoculates it with bacteria in a controlled setting. Ever wondered what “homogenized” means in reference to milk? With commercial milk production, all of the fat is removed (making skim milk) and then added back in the percentage indicated on the carton/bag.
Churning is not just a killer dance move, it is the process of agitating the milk. It breaks up the membranes surrounding the fat molecules, enabling the fat to form into clumps. The more you agitate, the bigger the clumps become. Essentially, you are switching from a fat-in-water emulsion to a water-in-fat emulsion. You can then knead the fat clumps to create an even smoother product. Most butter is between 15%-20% water. If you heat that butter to the melting point, you get clarified butter. Ghee, the most common form of clarified butter, has all the water removed. This allows it to be shelf-stable for 6+ months.
Butter was not immediately adopted as a food/cooking fat. Roman’s preferred olive oil to butter and only used butter as a cosmetic or wound salve. Butter was seen as the food of their enemies (the original seed oil skeptics). Pliny the Elder (he of the incredibly delicious beer) called butter "the most delicate of food among barbarous nations."
Ancient Celts would bury butter in wooden vessels (called “firkins”) in bogs to keep the butter cool. Firkins of “Bog Butter” from forgetful Celts (note to self: great band name) from as early as 400 BC have been found by archaeologists and keep turning up. Very squirrel-like behaviour from the Celt’s, if you ask me.
By the 12th century, the butter business was booming across northern Europe. The colder weather likely allowed for easier storage and shipping. Records show that Scandinavian merchants exported tremendous amounts each year, making the spread a central part of their economy. Butter was so essential to life in Norway, for example, that the King demanded a full bucket every year as a tax.
Good quality butter was so desired, that it provoked the Harvard Butter Rebellion of 1766. Asa Dunbar (who would later become the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau), incited the student body with the compelling chant of "Behold our butter stinketh! Give us therefore butter that stinketh not!” While this sounds like a momentous event, Harvard had rebellions of various sorts in 1766, 1768, 1780, 1805, 1807, 1818, 1823, and 1834.
In France, butter was in such high demand by the 19th century that Emperor Napoleon III offered a large prize for anyone who could manufacture a substitute. In 1869, a French chemist won the award for a new spread made of rendered beef fat and flavoured with milk. He called it “oleomargarine,” later shortened to just margarine.
Like Parmesan or Champagne, there are culturally protected butters. Beurre d'Isigny, for example, is known for its rich golden colour. The water in the region is very salty, resulting in a butter that has a long shelf life. It is shipped widely and you can likely find some at a high-end cheese store near you.
India is the world’s leading producer and consumer of butter, with 1.5M metric tons, much of it converted to ghee. The US is second at 900K metric tons.
There are many different kinds of butter and ways to think about it. For the average Considered reader, I would recommend a two-butter strategy: commercial unsalted butter in the fridge for cooking and baking, and a second butter that is more interesting and tasty. That is where the choices begin.
If you go to the shelves of your grocery store (or cheesemonger or specialty store), you will encounter a multitude of choices. One of those choices is cultured vs uncultured butter. Cultured butter occurs when the bacteria that is added to the cream ferments it (in a process similar to yogurt) to give the butter a more tangy taste. This is a personal favourite of mine.
TikTok has helped popularize a French butter maker called Le Beurre Bordier. They are famous for how they knead and shape their butters, as well as their mix-ins. Once the butter comes out of the churn, they use a kneading machine to get just the right texture and finish the shaping with wooden paddles. Restaurants can order their own custom shapes or flavours as well. Some of the more popular include seaweed and smoked salt.
I recently had the chance to speak with Guillermo Anderson, the COO of St Brigid’s Creamery. St Brigid’s is a relatively new butter producer based in Ontario, Canada. All their milk comes from an A2/A2 Jersey herd raised and cared for by Bill Van Ness and his wife Cindy, 3rd generation Canadian Dutch dairy farmers. They practice regenerative farming practices that focus on the health of the soil matter, resulting in less climate impact than traditional farming practices. Jersey cows produce a milk that is better suited to butter production because they produce more kilos of butterfat per litre of milk, but only 2/3 the total milk of Holsteins, the traditional commercial dairy cow.
The cows are milked in the farm’s parlour and then the milk is processed offsite before the cream is sent to Alliston Creamery. There, the cream is pasteurized and barrel churned. Barrel churning is pretty rare these days, with most large dairies using continuous churning. The barrel process is more gentle on the fat structure and creates a better texture.
Guillermo shared with me the seasonal nature of their production. When the cows are fed on pasture grass, the milk fat is a darker colour and has a deeper flavour. The winter milk has a milder flavour and paler colour. I strongly recommend you consider St Brigid butter for your second butter!
In accordance with government regulation, all the butter is frozen after it is manufactured and shipped at freezing temperatures (as is all butter you get at the grocery store). St Brigid’s butter is 84% milk fat, which is similar to French butters, so can be frozen for long periods (up to a year is recommended by St. Bridgid’s) with no noticeable degradation in quality.
Butter storage best-practice is a frequent debate. Fridges in New Zealand sometimes have a butter conditioner, which is a compartment equipped with a heater to keep butter at an ideal temperature. Butter can live for months in the fridge, but it hardens when cooled so is difficult to spread. Butter, especially pasteurized salted butter, can live on the counter for weeks in temperate climates. Tools like a butter bell/butter crock can increase the shelf life. A crock uses a small reservoir of water to maintain an air tight seal against the butter. I like the french inspired look of this one.
Butter falls into the category of a great small indulgence. A “splurge” of $7 or even $15 on a stick of butter can make the humblest slice of bread spectacular.
Butter sculpture was introduced at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Arkansas farmer and sculptor Caroline S. Brooks used nine pounds of butter and a butter paddle butter to create a bas-relief titled “The Dreaming Iolanthe” (a well-known heroine in the Danish play King Rene’s Daughter). Since then the form has evolved to include the use of elaborate wire skeletons and 500 to 600 lbs of butter per sculpture.
Butter sculpting was used a metaphor for democracy in the 2011 box office bomb Butter, staring Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, and Hugh Jackman. I haven’t seen it, but the cast does spark intrigue.
Caroline Brooks later graduated from butter to marble, studying sculpture in Paris and Florence. Though she never forgot where she came from. She would occasionally pick up the butter paddle to work in her original medium.
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