In praise of British butter
When it comes to dairy, the French are commonly considered the best producers in the world, with some regions being given the protection of AOP status. And when we’re looking for something special to smear on our bread we reach out for French products, because they’re the best. Right? Well, maybe not.
As the Isigny AOP butter website puts it “How do we explain the fact that gourmets favour Isigny butter? It is simple! The Isigny terroir has the advantage of a mild, damp climate”. Mmm, remind you of anything? The British climate is nothing if not mild and damp - so why aren’t our dairy products held in equally high esteem?
British: you can't put a better bit of butter on your knife.
There are lots of fabulous butters available in the UK and you don’t have to look far to find them: most supermarkets stock butter from small, local producers and typically the price will be less than that of the big-brand butters. So you can support small businesses and dairies, pay less and most probably get a better tasting product – what’s not to like?
The UK’s mild summers punctuated with frequent bouts of drizzle produce green and pleasant lands that are perfect for dairy production. The best cream comes from dairy cows grazed in meadows, so climate is crucial because it affects what will grow in the fields and therefore what the cow eats. And a cow’s diet has a marked effect on the flavour of butter.
Industrial scale butter production involves extracting small amounts of cream from whey, a by-product of cheese-making, and cultures are then added to the cream to improve longevity. Continuous churns are used, with the capacity to produce 22,000 lb of butter per hour. It results in a consistent if perhaps uninspiring product, but there are still companies around making butter the old fashioned way.
“[Large manufactures] add cultures to the cream to make it last longer. But ours doesn’t have any of that in it because it’s good quality milk so it lasts anyway,” says Linda Weeks, who’s been running Netherend Farm Butter in Gloucestershire with her husband, Wyndham, for over 30 years. They are one of many licensed organic producers in the UK, all seeking to provide high quality products in what has become a difficult market.
Their butter is made in small batches using a churn. “There’s an art to it,” says Wyndham “you know when it’s ready because it starts banging in the churn”. They’ve won many accolades from chefs and food writers in recent years, but seem slightly bemused by the attention their product is garnering, having always made it the same way. “A few years ago more chefs started wanting to use English produce and it gained in popularity,” says Wyndham. Netherend Farm's success proves that excellent butter is produced in this country, just as it always has been.
What to look for in a butter
If you are making flaky pastry a high fat content (or, more specifically, a low moisture content) is considered an advantage. However, any butter you buy in the UK will have a fat content of between 80-83% - so the difference really is incremental. This is why spreads cannot be used in place of butter in baking but margarine can be – the fat content of spread is usually around 70% fat, whereas margarine has a fat content similar to butter.
Flavour, however, does vary. Butter is undoubtedly best when made from the milk of free-range cows. Organic definitely pays dividends. And the fresher the cream, the better the butter. But it all boils down to taste, so try different butters and see what you prefer. There’s definitely no need to rely on mass-produced, imported butters.
Make it at home
Butter is made from pasteurised cream with a fat content of around 40%. This is agitated or churned to separate the liquid from the fat. Prills of fat are formed in a liquid (buttermilk) which is then drained off. The remaining prills of fat are then thoroughly washed (to improve the taste and extend the shelf life of the butter) and worked to create a smooth texture before salt is added and the butter is shaped.
If you’ve ever over-whipped cream when making a desert, then you were well on your way to making butter. Though breaking the fat molecules from the water is easy, you still need to strain the buttermilk and clean the remaining butter effectively, and that’s what is difficult to do at home. Any buttermilk lingering in the fat runs the risk of producing a ‘cheesy’ taste. It’s a fun experiment to do with children though, and you need nothing more than a whisk and a tub of cream.
Have you ever tried to make butter at home? What do you look for in a butter?