Butter is my dark secret. I eat it every day at breakfast, and sneak smears of it while cooking or just passing through the kitchen. I don’t do this at other people’s homes … unless I can get away with it.
While I appreciate good bread, it’s largely just camouflage for my butter habit – it’s the brown paper bag an alcoholic wraps round a bottle of Wild Turkey; the copy of Horse & Hound a teenage boy uses to conceal the latest issue of Big Jugs.
I’ve met people who only eat butter once a month, believing it’s really bad for you. Fortunately, the research is equivocal on the dangers of (high quality) saturated fats, and there is evidence that replacing butter with margarine or with carbohydrates may be even worse for you. There’s also some suggestion that butter can be good for you, with all its vitamins and such. This gives me a bit of solace … but it’s really only a justification for what I will continue doing – enjoying butter.
As Mary Oliver says in my favourite poem, “Wild Geese”: ‘Let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves’. Well, the soft animal of my body loves butter. However, my pleasure is usually off-set by worry: What happens if my arteries harden? If – with all my knowledge of healthy eating – I end up dying of diet-related disease? Each day at the breakfast table my knowledge-stuffed head does battle with ‘the soft animal of my body’. The animal always wins.
Butter promotes democracy (sort of)
I was encouraged to admit my love of butter after reading this recent post by Michael Moore, where he, too, admits to eating butter daily, and associates the practice with remedying some big social problems. That same week, I came out of the butter-lust closet in a big way, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). At this year’s ORFC I heard about food as a human right, the imperative to let cows and sheep eat grass, and how communications technology can support food democracy. I also met filmmaker Anne Cottringer and got a copy of her latest documentary ‘Tune for the Blood’, about the passion and persistence of young farmers in the UK.
Over lunch I shared a table with a volunteer from the Youth Food Movement, who explained that she would be leading a butter-making workshop at 3:30 that day. ‘Wha-wha-what?’ I asked, halting mid-chew, as a piece of pasture-fed pastrami fell from my lip. It’s like I had just been told Johnny Depp would be arriving at 3.30 and really, really wanted to meet me, because he wants to make a movie based on my blog, and thinks I’m really good-looking. Suddenly, my plans to attend some important sessions about research on genetically modified foods were dashed – the soft animal of my body wanted to make some butter.
Before I moved to Europe I was familiar with ‘heavy cream’, whipping cream, Half & Half and Cool Whip, which in fact has no cream. Moving to Europe was like finding myself inside a game of Candy Land, only this was Candy Land for dairy fetishists, where cream comes in single, double, extra-thick double, clotted, whipping, créme fraîche and a few other luscious varieties.
Today we were using super-thick double cream from North Aston Dairy. Me and my dairy-loving compatriots were each given a small plastic container with a sturdy lid, and two big dollops of cream, along with a generous sprinkling of salt. We put the lids on our containers tightly, and then shook them for an uncomfortably long time (at least without a sports bra). At one point, me and another butter-maker broke out in some Latin-inspired dance moves; but mostly we just stood and shook.
Soon we became like nine-year-olds in the back of a station wagon, asking every few minutes if we were there yet. Our guide would peer at our shaken cream and say patiently, “Not yet. Keep shaking”. There was only one small blow-out, when someone’s container lid sprung a leak and droplets of buttermilk sprayed the crowd. One person delicately wiped the droplets off her blouse with a damp towel, while I ungracefully licked the droplets off my sleeve. (The other participants were lucky I didn’t lick their sleeves, too.)
I shifted my container from one hand to the other, until, after about ten minutes, I could hear something solid bumping around. I opened the lid to find a lump of pale yellow butter and some white liquid at the bottom, which I was told was buttermilk. I was offered a slice of bread so that I could taste my butter, but instead I just stuck my finger in and licked the salty elixir straight-up. I was out of the closet now.
I made butter this way at home and it worked a charm. The cream I bought (again, from North Aston Dairy) was really, really thick, which made the job extra quick, and I added some crushed up French sea salt to see if it made a difference to the taste (not really). This isn’t the most efficient or cost-effective way to make butter, but it’s a fun way to get better acquainted with one of the foods I love most, and to practice some Latin dance moves.