THERE are four main reasons why a name starts with butter. It looks like butter: the bright yellow petals of a buttercup. It melts in your mouth, like butterfish and butter lettuce. It's smooth like butter. Or it contains butter as a key ingredient — butter bread, butter decoration, butter cake.
Everything is better with butter, the legendary cook and cookbook writer Julia Child said. For example, melt brown sugar in butter, add cream, and you have butter caramel. Cook shallots in equal amounts of white wine and vinegar, whisk in butter, and you have beurre blanc, the classic French butter sauce. Beat melted butter with lemon juice and the yolk of an egg and you have hollandaise. Grate cold butter between layers of dough, fold and roll, and you get a flaky crust that stands up like a collar.
Butter is a magician that creates divinity — just ask bread. These two are so attached to each other that one can hardly imagine a slice of bread without butter. And if your bread is buttered on both sides, you're blessed all round.
However, butter experts claim bread and butter are fairly recent acquaintances. Because even though mankind has eaten butter for more than 10,000 years, and bread three times longer, bread with butter is a novelty that only occurred about 500 years ago.
There are those who believe it was the bright idea of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, whose other great discovery was that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way round. But his butter story, like many good yarns, is pure nonsense. And as often happens, the truth is even stranger than fiction.
If you are wary of butter, use cream.
The first reference to butter with bread appears in the world's first fly-fishing manual, written in 1492 by an English nun, Juliana Berners. Yes, really! The life and times of butter is a story that is worthwhile telling repeatedly.
“If you are wary of butter, use cream.”
This statement by the same Julia Child, American and forerunner of celebrity chefs, is a spot-on summary of how the French feel about fat in general. There's a lot you can learn about butter from this author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking: there's nothing that crisps the skin of a roast chicken like buttering it beforehand, for example; and a little oil in your pan increases the smoke point of butter to prevent it from browning or burning too quickly.
Indeed, butter is such an integral part of French cuisine that one discovers to one's dismay that the French themselves are to blame for margarine. It's a story that begins and ends with a butter shortage.
It's 1869 and Louis-Napoléon III is the emperor of France, a position he had to obtain through a coup after the election of 1851 failed to go his way.
The impending Crimean War is just one of Napoleon III's many challenges. There is also the sharp rise in the price of butter as the Industrial Revolution causes people to flock from the countryside to the cities. To meet the energy needs of the soldiers and poor town folk, the emperor promises a large cash prize for anyone who comes up with a substitute for butter.
The winner is the chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who uses beef fat and skimmed milk to create a butter substitute that he calls oleomargarine — a combination of the Latin word for olive oil and Greek for a shiny pearl.
Plant oils replace beef fat by the time Hippolyte's creation reaches the US, where the powerful dairy industry initially offers fierce resistance. Margarine is banned in some states; elsewhere it is against the law to dye margarine yellow, and in New Hampshire it may be sold only if it is pink.
A butter crisis hits the patisseries in Paris.
But with the rationing of butter and animal fat during World War 1 and the Great Depression soon after, the wheel turned and by the end of World War 2, margarine was well established on store shelves and in Western kitchens. Housewives welcomed all kinds of convenience foods as liberating and a status symbol, and vegetable oil oligarchs supported research that proclaimed animal fats cause heart disease. By the late 20th century, it was almost only the French who still ate butter.
These days, however, there is a butter crisis in Paris's patisseries. A worldwide butter shortage caused the price of croissants to rise sharply, because practically no one could afford butter. It's not an industrial revolution this time, but a fat revolution fuelled by the Banting hysteria, with a growing appetite for all that is genuine and original. Hipsters don't eat Rama.
New research is denting margarine's healthy reputation, and at the same time China has developed a terrible craving for butter — and when China gets a craving for something, there is rarely enough of it.
In South Africa, the big suppliers who focused on low-fat products for decades are urging us to rediscover our appetite for fat. And since a shortage of butter is actually a shortage of cream, matters are made worse by the impact of the drought on milk production, especially in the Western Cape, which supplies almost one third of our dairy. The result is that by 2019 you were paying more for butter than for duck fat, which was once considered an unaffordable luxury.
Naturally, the more you pay for something, the higher your expectations are. As a result, more people are becoming aware that not all butters are created equal.
Acidified butter is made by adding bacteria to fresh cream that turns milk sugar into lactic acid.
Most butter on local store shelves is plain sweet butter, and you can choose between salted and unsalted. Unsalted butter is mostly recommended for baking because it allows you to accurately determine the salt content of your baked goods. But if you're serious about baking, or about butter in general, you're going to shell out extra money for cultured butter, which is mostly imported from Ireland or France.
Acidified butter is made by adding bacteria to fresh cream that turns milk sugar into lactic acid. This makes the cream sour and allows chemical compounds to form which result in an intense, complex butter with a flavour combination of sour, sweet, salty and umami.
You will mostly get your hands on locally cultured butter only from small producers, unless you are lucky and a supermarket near you stocks Ladismith cultured butter, which was named the dairy product of the year in 2011. But of course nothing stops you from making your own butter.
Make your own
It's simple. Buy the best cream you can find — unprocessed or pasteurised, it doesn't matter — and stir in yoghurt or buttermilk, about one tablespoon per cup of thick cream. Let it stand for 12 to 24 hours at a temperature of around 22°C. A cool day, in other words.
Now whip the cream until it “breaks" and the butter starts separating from the buttermilk. Keep whisking and watch the colour change from a pale to a sunny yellow. Beat more slowly until you have a lump of butter.
The next step is to wash the butter. Rinse it with ice-cold water repeatedly while you force out the remaining buttermilk with a spoon. Once the rinsed water remains clear, your butter is ready.
Add salt or herbs, as you wish, and store the butter in the fridge, but not before you have spread it thickly on a slice of bread.
It's butter, but better.
♦ VWB ♦
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