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The complete guide to butter

A guide to butter

by Clare Finney 13 February 2019

We all know the difference between salted and unsalted butter, but what about cultured, creamed, ghee and whey? Clare Finney talks to the artisan butter-makers of the UK and discovers a wealth of butters being made all over the country.

I don’t have to rewind very far through my life to reach the days when ‘real’ butter invariably meant the supermarket own-brand blocks my mum used for baking. Occasionally we had Lurpak: a cold, pale, sliceable and hard luxury reserved for sale days and holidays, but our daily spread – the one which graced our table day and night, ready for toast or tatties – was either I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter (we couldn’t) or Utterly Butterly (it wasn’t), depending on the best deal.

My first real butter was at the Hook and Son dairy farm in Sussex. Pressing a cool, paper-wrapped cylinder in my hand, Steve Hook urged us to head to the first bakers we could and tuck into it. ‘The fresher, the better,’ he cried over the sounds of our screeching wheels as we left the car park in search of a baguette. It was extraordinary – far superior to any ‘butter’ I had tasted (or dreamed of tasting). It was the work of Steve’s beloved herd of Holstein Friesian cows who feast on organic pastures and homemade silage, and whose whole, raw milk cream had been skimmed off, hand-churned and blended with Halen Môn Anglesey sea salt.

I’ve never gone back – at least, not willingly. Like farmhouse cheese, the artisan butter scene is flourishing in dairies across Britain. Chefs have their favourites. Some even make their own. But if, like me, you find this brave new world butter somewhat baffling, here’s a comprehensive guide to the scene.

Cultured butter

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Slightly sour and intensely buttery, this ode to the butter of yore is best appreciated on bread – but if your budget permits, don’t stop there. Cakes and pastry will benefit from its rich, complex flavour, and British cultured butter is increasingly being favoured by bakeries for use in their croissants and other patisserie.

Arguably the most ‘real’ of all the real butters, cultured butter is what butter would have been had you been alive a hundred years ago. ‘Originally the milk would have been left out in big vats so the cream came naturally come to the top – a process which would take a number of days. In this time, the cream would naturally ferment,’ says Grant Harrington of Ampersand Dairy. ‘The bacteria would grow during that time, which slightly sours the cream.’ That cultured cream, churned, would create a distinctly buttery flavour and texture. Yet with the industrialisation of cheese and butter production, the cream could be separated by machines and churned immediately. ‘The whole process is so fast, so there’s no time to develop any flavour,’ explains Grant. ‘There’s no acidity and no live cultures.’ It is churned, sterilised, homogenised cream.

Hence Ampersand, Grant’s offering to the butter business. His cultured butter is beloved amongst Michelin-starred chefs across the UK. ‘It was when I was working as a chef in Sweden that I learnt about cultured butter. The butter there blew my mind, it was so tasty – and I learnt that they made it using lactic bacteria, the traditional way.’ The lactic acid produced by the bacteria prolonged the longevity of the butter through harsh Swedish winters. Armed with the recipe, Grant returned to Oxfordshire and started collecting the finest local Jersey milk, separating the cream and adding a strain of lactobacillus which he knew would create an intensely buttery flavour. ‘The cultured cream is aged and, once it reaches maturity, churned.’ During this process, the bacteria eat the sugars and carbohydrates in the cream, producing the lactic acids which enhance the taste and increase the butter’s shelf life (‘over a month,’ says Grant). The butter is finished when it is hand-kneaded into moulds with Himalayan pink salt.

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Grant’s butter is pasteurised. His milk is delivered from several farms, so he isn’t looking to express a particular terroir. He just wants ‘the butteriest butter possible’. ‘The pasteurised milk offers a blank canvas,’ he continues, ‘so I have more control on the flavour I produce. I am looking to create a really good butter, not express what’s coming from the cow.’

Over at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore have taken a different approach with their Bungay butter – named after the nearby village of Bungay, which was once Britain’s butter capital. Their cream comes from their small, hand-picked herd of Montbeliarde cows – an ancient French breed – and it is cultured while it is still warm. It is then left overnight and chilled before churning. ‘We use two strains of culture, both of which are used to make Normandy butter in France,’ Jonny explains. Being unpasteurised, the butter expresses not just these strains of lactic culture, but the lush Suffolk pastures and the distinctive characteristics of Montbeliarde milk: complex, creamy, high in protein, with small globules of butter fat. At present, Bungay butter is the only cultured butter in the UK to be made with raw milk, and its shelf life reflects that: a couple of days, to be on the safe side – though you can cut it up and freeze it in chunks.

Beurre d'Isigny

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More widely available and marginally cheaper than British cultured butter, this French cultured butter can be used for anything you’d use (salted) butter for – sauces, cakes, pastry – but would be most at home on a crusty French baguette.

With its Jura breed of cow and Normandy lactic culture, Bungay butter closely resembles the butter of northern France – most famous of which is beurre d’Isigny. This unpasteurised butter hails from the Cotentin peninsula and Manche in Normandy – an area long renowned for its dairy farming thanks to its element-rich clay soil (the result of having been wetlands until the sixteenth century) and a climate which, like Britain’s, is mild and damp. In fact, the d’Isigny farmers describe their milk as the ‘grand cru’ of the dairy world, and their butter – a Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) since the 1980s – is similarly feted.

Only the best raw milk from pasture-fed cows within Manche and Cotentin can be used, making their butter quite literally the crème de la crème. ‘It is a slow maturation in ‘the old-fashioned way’ that allows the creams that we use to fully develop their flavour and all their organoleptic qualities,’ they explain. Seeded with lactic cultures, the cream then rests for sixteen to eighteen hours before being churned, producing grains of butter with a remarkable suppleness and distinctive flavour notes of hazelnut, sweet salt and milk.

Cream butter

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The smooth texture and pure nature of cream butter makes it ideal for anything where the slightly sour notes of cultured butter are less desirable: delicate sauces, potatoes, baking, scones and so on. If you prefer your butter mild and sweet rather than strong and tangy, you’ll enjoy this on bread and crumpets too.

Netherend Farm in Gloucestershire might have come some way since the days local villagers brought their own jugs to the farm gate to collect milk – but it’s not changed in fundamentals. Its butter is still sweet cream butter – that is butter without additives, colouring, lactic cultures or indeed anything other than cream and salt; and while the scale of the production might have increased to meet the demands of their Michelin-star-studded ordering list, the business is still entirely dependent on a traditional barrel churn.

‘Our method is completely different to industrialised butter production where the milk enters the dairy and it is pasteurised, separated and turned into butter in one continuous line,’ explains owner Linda Weeks. ‘We have kept up with demand by increasing the number of barrel churns we use, but our skilled buttermaker still churns in small batches.’ Like Ampersand, Netherend sources its cream from a variety of farms in the local area.

Whey butter

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Like cultured butter, whey butter is best enjoyed as a spread – but if you like its rich, slightly savoury notes you’ll enjoy it in pretty much everything.

‘Whey butter has been through the cheesemaking process. If you like, it is cultured butter,’ says Mary Quicke of Quicke’s Farm in Devon. Whey butter is the butter those cheesemakers produce which are big enough to afford a separator and churn, but not so big to supply industrial food manufacturers with whey powder – so whey butter is almost guaranteed to be from a successful artisan. ‘Traditionally the butter paid the cheesemakers’ wages, she smiles. ‘Not now!’

Whilst cultured butter as produced by Bungay, Ampersand and the beurre d’Isigny makers in Normandy has distinctive flavours arising from specific butter cultures, the flavours in whey butter arises from the cheesemaking cultures. ‘Quicke’s makes cheese in a way that means any excess fat comes out in the whey to be made into butter, while our heritage starters give the whey distinctive nutty notes thanks to the rich variety of lactose-fermenting bacteria in them. We separate the whey immediately, giving some sweetness to the flavour, and cook the whey cream for some time to stop the starter bacteria acidifying it.’ This lends a rich depth of flavour you certainly wouldn’t get from butter produced solely by cream. The butter is churned on a small scale, so each batch receives individual attention at the hands of an experienced butter-maker. ‘We still hand-roll the butter to finish it, which allows our butter-maker to check every curl.’

Ghee

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A borderline immortal shelf life and high smoke point has made ghee a go-to fat in India and, increasingly, the UK. Any dish involving sautéing and frying has much to gain from the nutty, caramelised flavours of old-school clarified butter, as do enriched Indian breads like roti and naan.

Ghee is the result of a long, slow, careful clarification process in which the butter is slowly cooked until all the milk solids have been removed and the water has evaporated. It’s the moisture in the butter that causes degradation but, being moisture-free, ghee has no such problem – and can be stored at either ambient or chilled temperatures. ‘It is golden in colour and has a slightly grainy texture,’ explains Linda. Were it not for the colour – and taste, which is slightly fudgy – you could be forgiven for confusing it with lard. ‘Ghee has one of the highest smoke points of oils and fats, which makes it the better choice than butter or other oils for high-temperature cooking.’ Both Netherend Farm and Hook & Sons produce cream butter, and from that both produce ghee, to the delight of both Asian and non-Asian customers.

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