A Better Butter!
Who knows how my mother fell victim to the siren song of a 1970’s advertising campaign, but one day she took our butter dish from the refrigerator and casually tossed it aside. Later that evening as we waited for our supper, she placed a blue plastic tub next to the bread basket. My brother and I peered into the tub at the much-too-yellow spread until my brother asked in a strikingly confident tone, “Where’s the butter?”
My mother looked at him squarely, zipped up her pink jogging suit and pointed to the plastic tub: “This is far better than butter.”
Of course, it wasn’t better. Nothing was better than butter. Her intentions, while admirable, unwittingly set off in me an insatiable craving for butter. I dog-eared the pages in my Little House on the Prairie book where Laura helped Ma churn the butter and reread them so often that I could recite the passages by heart. And I begged—incessantly so—to visit my grandparents, who kept their butter dish on the countertop, from which I could sneak thick pats when no one was looking.
It’s hard to imagine a food that’s been around for 4,000 years getting a bad rap, but butter fell into the crosshairs of both cardiologists and nutritionists. For several decades it was shunned in kitchens everywhere. More recently, though—and certainly not surprisingly— butter has made a comeback and as we happily slather it on our morning toast, we’re learning that there is a better butter.
The earliest references to butter can be traced to the nomadic Syrians, who roamed the lands herding cattle. Imagine their surprise when after transporting cream in handsewn animal skins tied to the backs of their donkeys, that they discovered the cream had solidified. Without words to describe the alchemy, a new word was born—bou-tyron— which loosely translated to cow cheese.
This new food discovery was calorie dense, incredibly filling and able to provide the herdsmen much-needed sustenance for their nomadic lifestyle. Had it not been for the animal skins, which they reused without washing, they might have also discovered that the cow cheese quickly spoiled in the heat. However, since the insides of the bags contained a buildup of the cultures left behind from the previous batch, it prevented the cream from spoiling. One caveat, though, was that the residue of lactic acid gave the bou-tyron a fetid aroma and strong flavoring, but to put it into a modern perspective, this same lactic acid is what gives blue and gorgonzola cheeses that barnyard funkiness that we so love.
Fermented and aged butter is common throughout the Middle East. In Morocco, it’s called smen, and it’s so popular that in the main market there is an entire square dedicated its commerce. Made from sheep, goat or cow milk, smen is usually aged from one to two years, but there are those that have been aged far longer and, just like wine, the longer they’re aged, the more flavorful, rustic and complex their flavor. Aged smen is considered a treasure: Among Berber tribesmen, it’s a tradition that on the day a daughter is born, a father will bury a ceramic crock of the stuff into the earth and, then years later, unearth it to share at her wedding feast.
The taste for flavorful butter extended well beyond the borders of the Middle East and into Europe, where cultured butter is still the spread of choice, especially among the French and Irish. Centuries ago, the Irish would add garlic to their butter, then scoop it into a firkin—a small wooden vessel or cask—and bury it in the bog—the perfect anaerobic and acidic environment for preserving the butter. So prolific was this practice among the Irish that well into the 1900s firkins were the most common archeological find in Ireland, with the largest discovery weighing in at over 100 pounds. After being sent to the lab for further testing, it was revealed that the cheeselike mass was perfectly preserved and suitable for human consumption, though no one was willing to give it a try.
My epiphany came the first time I slathered good European butter onto a slice of bread. While I had always loved butter, discovering a butter that was tangy and richly nuanced, herbaceous and funky, was mind altering—and the taste, addicting. That I was able to keep my composure and refrain from eating it by the spoonful is testament to my willpower.
Thankfully, that revelation, along with a little research, led me to a life-changing realization for myself and my fellow butter lovers: There is a better butter to be had , and we can make it in our own kitchens. Right now!