By: Lynn Ogryzlo
You’ve heard it before, “butter will kill you and broccoli will save your life”. But culinary icons like Julia Child, Chef Michael Smith and Martha Stewart have always believed that butter is beautiful. Now that the heat has refocused on margarine, butter has never been more fashionable; nor has the opportunity to rediscover it, been more rewarding.
All around the country, butteristas like myself have discovered something new to excite our palates; artisanal butter, produced in small quantities, from natural ingredients by small-scale producers around the world.
I was first smitten by the butter bug years ago at the Savour Stratford Festival. In a region dominated by agriculture and influenced by the Stratford Chefs School, it’s no wonder Savour Stratford is one of the top food and wine events of the country. Among the duck confit with sauvignon blanc, the Berkshire pork with merlot, chef Jonathan Gushue formerly of Langdon Hall bravely and simply served house butter on fresh baguette. That’s right, just plain bread and butter!
However, there was nothing plain about this; one mouthful and I was instantly taken aback. The fragrant, creamy, rich, almost nutty, salty flavours began to luxuriate across my tongue and I swooned over the mouthful of sweet, creamy, decadence.
Gushue’s butter had the cleanness of a crisp Riesling, the brightness of crème fraîche, luxurious legs of a voluptuous chardonnay and the tender sweetness of a Chantilly cream. Flavours danced from sweet cream to heavenly vanilla and an almost nutty finish – almond perhaps.
This might sound like the language of oenophiles or perhaps cheese aficionados. But it isn’t. It’s the new talk of butteristas; people who travel for artisan butters, single butters that are made from one herd, others that reflect a regions terroir, complex flavours from the fermentation of cultured butter and compound butters that absorb the flavour of their aromatic ingredients.
Butter is a dairy product churned into a spread, yet all butters are not alike. Like wine, butter has many flavour compounds – over 120 of them to be exact from fatty acids to dimethyl sulfide. What this means is that all butters take on their own characteristics. But in order to show terroir or distinctiveness, it must begin with a pure, high quality ingredient – of which the majority of Canada unfortunately, does not subscribe to.
In Canada we’re surrounded by a sea of commercial butter made with the milk of the high yielding, low fat Holstein cows. And why not? Canadians are obsessed with hating fat, but here lies the first problem. Canadian cream is a skinny 35% compared to the European 48% and it’s the butterfat content in cream that seduces us into loving butter. So how can our butter compare when we’re starting with inferior raw ingredients?
A simple butter tasting will reveal everything you ever wanted to know about buying good tasting butter; but it isn’t an easy tasting to organize. You can find imported French butter in Quebec and Belgian butter in Ontario, but butter doesn’t seem to spread itself across the country very well. For example you’d never find a pound of British Columbia’s delicious Foothills Creamers Butter in Ontario or a Quebec Lamothe Cremerie butter in Saskatchewan.
Living in Southern Ontario I organized a butter tasting with what I could find around me. I found one butter in my area for the tasting, a few more in Toronto at specialty food shops like Whole Foods and Galati, a few more at Premier Gourmet in Tonawanda, New York and one just down the street made in house by Peller Estate Winery Restaurant.
Jason Parsons, Executive Chef of Peller Estate Winery Restaurant in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake is an Englishman by birth and grew up eating Normandy butter. Admittedly, the butter of his adopted country pales in comparison so he decided one day to make his own.
For traditional table service, Peller Estate Winery Restaurant serves up rich icewine butter in place of the traditional bread dippers of flavoured oils and bold vinegars. Made by executive sous chef Maurice Desharnais, it’s simple heavy cream that goes into the machine and is whipped beyond ‘stiff peaks’ into the separation stage where the cream turns into butter and separates from the buttermilk.
It’s that simple. In fact, making butter is such a basic skill that a six-year-old can master from fresh cream, a jar and some elbow grease. Think about it, anyone who has ever over-whipped cream (yes you have – admit it!) has unwittingly made butter.
No jars and elbow grease at Peller, not even wooden butter churners, but slick stainless steel efficient equipment 10 times the size of a household electric mixer. As the milk begins to separate it becomes a real messy job as the solid bits begin to slosh against the watery buttermilk and splashes all over. The entire process lasts approximately 15 minutes and you have butter.
[box type=”shadow” ]Butter Tasting Notes
These butters were tasted blind at room temperature to encourage them to release as much flavour as possible. They were rated out of a 10 point scale, 10 being the highest score (scored on aroma, flavour, body and price).
President’s Choice Normandy-style, Cultured butter, Ontario, 26% fat. Rated: 10
Bio Organic made by Fromagerie L’Ancetre, Quebec, 27% fat. Rated: 10
Lurpak, an imported butter from Denmark, 35% fat. Rated: 8
Plurga, (red wrapper) an American made European-style butter, 35% fat. Rated: 8
Organic Meadow cultured, unsalted butter from Guelph, 26% fat. Rated: 6
Life in Provence, French imported, AOC butter, 36% fat. Rated: 5
Lactantia. My Country, Swiss flavoured, cultured unsalted butter, 26% fat. Rated: 4
Hasting’s Whey Butter from Sterling Creamery, Sterling, Ontario, 27% fat. Rated: 10
Peller Estate Winery Butter, Ontario. Rated: 10
D’Isigney Burre, French imported, AOC butter, 38% fat. Rated: 8[/box]
Next Chef Moe as he’s called by the kitchen staff, drains away the buttermilk (uses it for baking and making crème fraîche) and squeezes out every last drop with his hands creating big balls of butter that go into ice water to firm up. The ice water is now littered with blobs of hand squeezed butter and he reaches for a shaker of salt and a measuring cup with a reduced icewine that now resembles a dark, molasses-like liquid. Chef Moe takes each hunk of butter and puts them on a cold marble slab, presses it out flat and drizzles it with salt and reduced icewine. Then he kneads it like a blob of bread dough to mix the flavours before it’s put into a brick mold and refrigerated. Home made butter will last a few weeks in the refrigerator.
Butter is fat and fat is notorious for picking up flavours and odors of foods around them (ah, some of you are remembering an unpleasant experience?). But butters ability to absorb flavours is not always a bad thing. Chef Parsons uses it to his advantage by making icewine butter.
Compound or infused butters can be found at many restaurants from garlic and herb butter to truffle or coffee butter. In fact most aromatic foods can be infused into butter with great results such as chocolate, vanilla, citrus and even peppermint!
When butters absorbing abilities are unwelcome or that oxidized skin appears when you’ve left the butter out for a few days, it can be disappointing. But I’ve found a simply brilliant solution to keeping butter fresh and spreadable; a butter bell.
Years ago, my good friend Magdalena Kaiser-Smit introduced me to this new culinary tool when she moved back to Niagara-on-the-Lake from a decade long career in the USA. I finally found one in a little kitchen shop in Richmond, BC and for the inexpensive price of $10, I bought 6 of them to bring back to Ontario for family and friends. You can easily find them in kitchen shops in Niagara today.
It’s a simple concept. Put soft butter inside the crock which is attached to the underside of the lid. Fill the bottom with cool water and put the butter filled top into the crock. The water seals the butter, locking in its freshness. You can leave the butter bell on a kitchen counter for up to three weeks and know that you’ve got fresh, spreadable butter whenever you want it.
The most flavourful of all butters is cultured. The equivalent to reserve wines, cultured butter is simply fuller, richer butter with a tangy finish. The cream has been soured and allowed to ferment or “ripen” at room temperature prior to ageing in the refrigerator. Like making crème fraîche, bacterial action develops fuller aromas and flavours that carry over into both the butter and buttermilk. From this you can make the most amazing buttermilk biscuits that are the perfect host for a smear of fresh, delicious cultured butter.
Many high-end chefs tend to overlook butter because of its simplicity, but not any longer. New Executive Chef at Langdon Hall, Jason Bangerter is also a believer in good butter and maintains the tradition of house-turned butter, spilling the buttermilk into his pastries, the results are decadent.
The likes of Bangerter and Parsons are showing that simplicity counts in customization and bragging rights and why not? Logically speaking Canadians shouldn’t be making the best tasting butters, but a quick look at the butter tasting notes, proves otherwise.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.