Judging by the amount of space devoted to it in the average supermarket, few people eat butter these days, let alone worry about which type to buy. Yet good butter spread on freshly baked bread is one of the simplest, most delicious treats. The French, at least, still value their jambon beurre.
It wasn’t always like this. In Mongolia, where butter is believed to have originated, its use is ubiquitous – it is even added to tea and plays a role in religious ceremonies, weddings and birthdays.
In other countries, too, butter dates back millennia. It was first derived from camels, yaks, and reindeer, as well as farm animals. According to a fascinating new book called Bread & Butter: History, Culture, Recipes, ‘there are even mythological tales of yak butter being made accidentally by children kicking yak-skin sacks filled with yak milk’.
France, though, is still the heart of butter culture. French butters are traditionally made from cultured cream – that is, cream to which bacteria have been added or allowed to develop then matured for between 12 and 24 hours. This process results in a more savoury, tangy taste – some 150 different flavours in all, according to Patrik Johansson of artisanal producer Butter Vikings. ‘Most of the 150 taste components are under the FTV [flavour threshold value], but there seems to be a synergistic effect that gives a complex, deep real butter aroma/flavour. Industrial butter has artificial butter flavour added, which mainly consists of diacetyl.’
Johansson started making butter on the Isle of Wight and is in the process of relocating to Somerset. Along with Abernethy Butter in Northern Ireland and Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, he is one of a new band of UK-based artisanal producers reviving traditional styles. Fen Farm makes a raw milk cultured butter from its Montbeliarde and Friesian cows, alongside an award-winning Brie-style cheese called Baron Bigod.
If Diane St Clair’s Animal Farm creamery in Vermont is anything to go by, they have a profitable future ahead. Butter from St Clair fetches $50 a pound in the United States; it’s incredibly scarce, thanks largely to interest from top American chef Thomas Keller.
French butters such as Échiré and Beurre d’Isigny are paler than British ones partly because of the cattle breeds they rear (we tend to have more Jersey and Guernsey cows, which metabolise beta carotene in the grass more effectively to create a richer-coloured butter) and because fewer cows are grass fed.
Sheep and goat butters are generally paler, too, though carotene is another additive that can be added to butter, undeclared.
The other, more obvious difference is between salted and unsalted butter. Unsalted is recommended for baking and patisserie, but a wide variety of cooks choose it on the basis that they can then decide how much salt to use. It may depend more on what you want your butter for – and the time of day you use it. For breakfast, it may be a mild sweet butter you can enjoy with jam; for a lunchtime or evening snack with a few radishes and a glass of wine, salted butter – or at least butter sprinkled with salt – may be more apposite.
But the most important factor in the appreciation of butter – as with cheese – is to serve it at room temperature. ‘People complain uselessly about the fact that butter is hard to spread,’ says Johansson. ‘Keep the butter in old-fashioned butter crocks or bells at room temperature, and it will be perfectly spreadable.”
Three ways to use butter
Often spotted in hip restaurants, this is easy to make at home by beating milk or water into soft butter (easiest with an electric hand-held mixer), preserving the buttery taste but making it much airier and even dippable. You can also flavour it with fresh herbs or honey, maple syrup or brown sugar for a dessert butter. (See butterjournal.com for a useful list of recipes.)
Also known as beurre noisette, essentially this is butter heated until it is a nutty brown. (Obviously you need to watch it like a hawk to make sure it doesn’t burn.) You can use it in savoury dishes – the most famous being raie (skate) au beurre noir, where it’s cooked with lemon juice, parsley and capers – but it’s also a delicious substitute for butter in home-baked biscuits and shortbread.
One of the oldest tricks in the French culinary repertoire, this ‘kneaded’ mixture of butter and flour is the perfect way to thicken a sauce or an English gravy without getting a floury taste or texture. Simply work 25g of flour into an equal amount of soft butter, whisk it into your pan juices over a low heat – et voilà!