Historic Bites: Butterly Delicious

“With enough butter, anything is good.” Julia Child

For decades, butter has been demonised, labelled an artery-clogger contributing to high cholesterol and obesity, and replaced with low fat spreads and margarines.

An ingredient at the very heart of western cuisine for centuries, butter is one of the purest fats available, tastes ambrosial and now, rather wonderfully, is making a rather a grand comeback.

My Grandmother is 109 years old and has lived on a diet primarily composed of meat, butter, a little bread and potatoes all her life. She is fit as a fiddle, her blood pressure’s that of an 18 year old and her outlook extremely youthful. She starts every day with one slice of toast spread, very thickly, with butter. In Norwegian there is a lovely word ‘Tandsmør’ meaning ‘Tooth Butter’ – it is the amount, when spread on bread which leaves a toothmarks.

Etymologically, the word butter comes from the Greek βούτυρον (bouturon) meaning ‘cow or ox cheese’ and during the Middle Ages butter was burned in lamps, just like oil. Butter was a very important commodity and, throughout the UK, you’ll find ‘butter markets’ a legacy from a time when cheese and butter production was essential to the economy. In Rouen, in the north of France, the cathedral’s Butter Tower was built in the 16th century as a tribute to the bishop who authorised the use of butter in lamps during lent when oil was scare.

There are several types of butter; sweet cream butter (pasteurised), salted butter, raw cream butter (unpasteurised), whey butter and cultured butter, all being made across Europe and North America, and of course, Ghee (which is a clarified butter) is used in Indian and eastern cooking, the removal of the milk solids, giving it the ability to keep in hot climates, and it’s more stable at higher cooking temperatures. Classic unsalted butter, or ‘sweet cream butter’, which was first made on a large scale, in the 19th century once pasteurisation allowed for extended longevity before fermentation, but there are some wonderful artisan producers making cultured and whey butters in this country, some of whom I’ll list below.

French butter is regarded as some of the world’s best, but it was also France which first gave us margarine, after a competition was launched by Napoleon III calling for somebody to invent a replacement for butter to feed the army and the poorer population . Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès created a product, in 1869, which he called Oleomargarine, made from beef tallow, salt, sodium sulphate and a small amount of cream, amongst others things – these were actually rather nutritious in their various parts…and from this monstrosity (vis the USA who had discovered that they could replace beef tallow with hydrogenated vegetable oil) eventually came the plasticised monstrosity we know today as margarine.

So, historically, the majority of butter would have been ‘cultured’ which is fermented to some degree and gives a delicious, individual flavour. This also allowed cream from several days’ milking to be used at once, by which time earlier milk would have fermented slightly. Also, butter would have been heavily salted to help preserve it in the days before refrigeration. Butter would also be regularly ‘washed’ and re-salted to keep it fresh. The British were well known in the medieval period for their love of butter on vegetables, something which I’m rather keen on today, or vegetables with their butter as is more often the case at my table.

Sourcing British Butter

Fenn Farm Dairy: Bungay Raw Cultured Butter from Suffolk. A real treat, certainly one to savour. Simply spread on fresh sourdough and enjoy.

Netherend Farm: Organic and Non-Organic butter, from Gloucestershire. As seen on many a celebrity table, made in the Severn Vale, salted and unsalted – the perfect cook’s butter.

Quicke’s : Whey Butter – a delicious and rare heritage recipe recognised by the Slow Food movement as one of the UK’s ‘Forgotten Foods’. Made in Devon. Melt over seasonal asparagus.

Hook and Son: Raw butter from East Sussex. Excellent all purpose butter, use to fry mushrooms with fresh parsley and black pepper for a classic English breakfast.

Cotswold Butter: Made in Worcestershire, a classic salted English butter with sea salt. Perfect for those toasted crumpets.

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