I look at the shopping list for the dinner I am preparing for friends and see butter scribbled just under bread and above asparagus. Simple enough, go to the dairy section and grab a pound. Ah yes, for the uninitiated that may be fine. But I have a good crusty bread in my cart and would love the Vermont butter with coarse salt that comes in this cute wooden basket with blue gingham paper. I will be reducing a sauce with butter for the fish so I have to think, what do I want that flavor to be? I hate to admit this, but I love butter. I don’t dream of it, or think about it all the time, just when I need to cook with it, or when I walk by the refrigerator section of a grocery store , or am traveling to a country that specializes in dairy, or am eating toast, or …there are so many times to think about butter. Some people can’t pass by a shoe shop for danger of being lured in by footwear. My obsession is butter.
I blame England for my addiction. Okay, it isn’t completely responsible. I do remember sitting at a holiday meal with my sister-in-law – long before English butter entered my life – loading our baked potatoes with pats from the silver dish and laughing that the potato was just a delivery vehicle for the butter. It is something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child, when we had “real butter” on Sunday and margarine during the week. Living on my own meant “real butter” daily.
But it was mid 1990’s, while vacationing in the Lakes District of England that I first ate farm fresh butter. We sat around the kitchen table of our little cottage, eating the scones we had picked up that morning. I remember biting into it and the flavor jumping out at me. It was so light yet had so much flavor, not just fattiness, it was like eating fresh cream only better. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the country known for shortbread ,which is just butter held together with some flour and sugar. My favorite cookie.
We slathered butter on everything we ate in England and Scotland. When we returned home, the poor American butter felt inadequate and we’d sit at the dinner table and sigh over the English version. But we got on with our lives and the British butter became a faded memory.
Come the year 2000 we made a trip to France. We bought some butter at a local farmers’ market and as we were biting into the baguette laden with it, my daughter and I both looked at each other and exclaimed, “Oh my God, the butter.” Yes French butter was just as good, sometimes better, than the English.
Jean Yves Bordier Offering Butter
It has everything to with where and what the cows are fed as well as the hand of the producer. I read about the famous Brittany butter maker Jean Yves Bordier. When asked why his butter is so good he said, “I haven’t invented anything new, I use old methods that respect the land, the animals, and tradition.” That respect is what makes his cow’s milk churn into such a creamy delight.
I was now on a mission to learn more. When I went to the Fancy Food shows trade shows for people in the gourmet industry, I found myself in the dairy aisles talking to the artisan butter makers. This is how I found the stuff not carried in the big chain stores: Vermont Butter and Cheese company , Sierra Nevada, and Meyenberg Goat Butter. I learned about cultured butter (the cream is slightly fermented adding depth of flavor) more popular in Europe, and sweet cream butter (made with pasteurized milk).
One day I was waiting in the checkout line at my local grocery store and there was Saveur Magazine with a whole issue devoted to butter. I had hit the mother load. I bought several copies, certain that everyone would want to enrich their knowledge of this golden goodness. Isn’t it funny that when you are intensely interested in something you assume everyone shares your enthusiasm?
An article in the magazine lead to me to Restaurant Jean in Paris. They serve the Brodier butter from Brittany. I had to try it. Yes it was worth the trip. I was in a local French market and noticed their huge assortment of butter from around the world. I filled my basket with Anchor from New Zealand, Pamplie from the French Coast and at least thirty dollars worth of other butters from all parts of the globe. Oh the decadence, the joy of being able to sample such an array all in one sitting.
Maybe it isn’t just the butter that captivates me. It is the fascination of where products come from, how they are made, what makes each different, much to the boredom of my friends sometimes. I don’t want to eat something just because it is touted by the latest gourmet magazine or blog. I need to see for myself, form my own opinion. My shop feeds this obsession by allowing me to taste five different english toffees before deciding which I’ll carry. Recently we opened four different bags of potato chips to determine which had the best potato flavor. Today I listened to the man behind the counter at Canter’s Deli as he explained how to reheat the pastrami I had just bought to bring out the best flavor. It is the pride he had in his pastrami that delighted me. Artisan product is crafted by someone who wants to bring out the best in the material he is working with, whether that be stone, fabric, or cream.
It comes down to the search for truth in every aspect of life; my true passion. They say curiosity killed the cat. It won’t kill me, but it certainly contributes to the fifteen pounds I chronically want to lose.