If Harrods food hall were burning and I could grab only one thing before I ran from the store that has everything, it would be butter. Not milk, not cream, not Somerset Cheddar, not Normandy Brie. Not one of those holds a candle to butter. No other food has anything close to butter's concentrated goodness of clover, alfalfa, rye, dandelions and grass.
Butter has the taste of a flower, but rich. The first bite in spring is like you've rolled down a grassy slope on a sunny day, eating cake. It's the distillate of meadow, waiting to be spread across a piece of bread, after which, depending on your mood, it will need a sprinkling of salt or a spoonful of jam. Butter is why dairy farmers farm, chefs cook and this eater eats.
Butter's so good that Catholics give it up during Lent as a show of piety, though on a traditional farm, that is about as big a sacrifice as giving up sunshine at midnight. Dairy cows only give the milk that provides the cream that provides the butter after they've calved. Traditionally, farmers time breeding so they calve in the spring, and the milk only starts flowing around Easter.
Butter is the best of that milk, the cream of the cream. It's made by skimming cream from milk, cooling it to just below room temperature, then agitating that cream so its most congenial fats, the ones in which all the best milk flavors reside, huddle up in glorious globules as the watery buttermilk drains out. These globules are then either salted or left sweet, and churned to a smooth, golden mass.
That's the most basic butter. For a nuanced taste, and the potential for improvement in aging, Europeans add a bacterial culture to the cream, so that it ferments slightly before churning. This will digest lactic acids, producing the complex flavors that keep drawing our knives back to the butter.
American vs. European
Dairy technologists will tell you that the difference between European and American butter is merely textural -- a question of fat content. Indeed, our commodity butters contain the 80% fat required by law, and European butters have more like 84% to 86%. American dairies that do not stint on the fat, such as the organic Straus Family Creamery, routinely label their butter "European style" because of its richness, but the complexity is lacking.
Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese dares us to buy any French butter -- President, Isigny, Echire -- and fail to notice the difference. It will have the character, the irresistibility, so lacking in most American butter. The ingredients panel will list "lactic starter." When Hooper started making cultured butter five years ago, French chefs in New York went nuts for it. "They all said, 'This is what we remember from home,' " she says. Occasionally Vermont Butter & Cheese cultured butter graces the shelves of West Coast Whole Foods stores. If you see it, buy it. It is superb, and as important as any new American cheese.
But it somehow seems right and proper that the best butter comes from France. French cuisine is built on it. There are the butter sauces, bearnaise, hollandaise. Butter makes a Wednesday night gravy sublime: Deglaze a pan with vinegar, add a knob of butter and you have instant sauce. There is butter on noodles, butter dotted on chicken before roasting, anchovy butter with garlic and rosemary packed over a leg of lamb, then roasted with half a bottle of white wine and the juice of a lemon. There is the beautiful butter seal over little ramekins of chicken liver pate.
Nowhere does butter do more glorious service than in French pastry. Imagine a croissant with margarine. Second thought, let's not. Butterless puff pastry, impossible. Olive oil cake is interesting -- once.
Even Americans are roused by butter. All it takes is a whiff wafting off a warm piece of toast or a baked potato. Unlike olive oil, which often has green and fiery notes, butter is never strident. Nothing marries so well with the deep mineral flavors of spinach. The more butter you melt into blanched spinach leaves, the happier the marriage. Too much is enough.
To test the congeniality of molten butter with new-season vegetables, put out an olive oil vinaigrette with a plate of boiled spring artichokes. Then next to it put out melted butter with salt, cracked black pepper and lemon. Now just watch which bowl will be dunked to dryness the fastest.
This is not to bash olive oil. Butter has no business on salad or tomato. Sometimes one can be substituted for the other. Butter and olive oil can even be blended together: Witness pesto. But it would be a crime to put olive oil on peas if butter were in the house.