I found myself perplexed as I sat inside Dedalus, a wine store and restaurant located in Burlington, Vermont. Bread and butter were offered for the same price of $12 as an appetizing chicken liver mousse on the restaurant’s menu. I wasn’t persuaded that the time-honored combination should come at such a high price, so I went with the cow itself and ordered beef tartare topped with shavings of horseradish and caviar. In spite of this, the waiter came back to bring the bread and the butter. And in the end, I couldn’t resist giving in to my interest, so I did it.
When I was growing up in the United States of America, butter was never anything more than a warm-up act at a comedy concert. People may take note of it because it is thrown from the stage, they will take it since it is usually free, and they will at least partially enjoy it because it momentarily silences the crowd’s complaints that the main act is taking too long to arrive. There is no way that butter could ever be the reason that someone would purchase the ticket in the first place. However, all of that is beginning to change as a result of the efforts of a select group of eateries and creameries located around the nation.
When it came, the really high-end butter was perched on a weathered wooden board, and it was a shade of deep yellow. It was placed next to a loaf of olive ciabatta. The seasoning consisted of coarse sea salt and ground black pepper that had been sprinkled on top by the kitchen. The restaurant butter was not how I remembered it; instead, it was a sad, foil-wrapped square that was melting into a puddle next to a dinner bun.
I dipped the knife into the fat, smeared it about, and then took a mouthful of it. I was really taken aback by that. It had a sour and sweet taste, was velvety smooth, and left a lingering aftertaste on my tongue. The server, who was happy with their performance, informed that only a select few locations across the globe offered this particular brand, which was called Animal Farm Butter and originated from a little dairy in Orwell, Vermont that had a creatively titled.
In contrast to the cows in George Orwell’s book, who are abused by a careless farmer and later tricked by a dictatorial pig and his brainwashed henchman, Animal Farm was founded on a foundation of respect for its animals. This contrasts with the treatment of the cows in Orwell’s novel. Diane St. Claire opened her business in the year 2000 with the goal of producing gourmet butter, remaining a small operation in order to maintain quality control, and providing a good life for her herd, which at the time consisted of only three grass-fed Jersey cows. Jersey cows are a breed that produces milk that has a high butterfat content.
St. Claire sent Thomas Keller five pounds of her butter and asked if he would be interested in purchasing some for his restaurant The French Laundry after reading about the career of renowned chef Thomas Keller and his California restaurant The French Laundry. Keller owns and operates The French Laundry. Two days after that, a message popped up on my answering machine, as St. Claire explains.
Keller tells me, “It was much better to anything that we were capable of doing,” before he remembers the voicemail he left for St. Claire, which was: “How much do you make? Because we’re going to purchase everything.”
In addition to making audacious requests of cooks who had been awarded Michelin stars, St. Claire went through a substantial number of hoops to make her butter exceptionally remarkable. She let the cows room to relax and range freely, and she fed them grass, which is what their bodies were meant to digest organically. (During the colder months, they consumed grain in addition to the hay that they consumed all year long.) She mated her American Jerseys with Jerseys from Holland, which are known to yield a higher butterfat content, as well as Jerseys from New Zealand (which are more efficient grazers). Despite this, she maintained a small herd so that she could more easily monitor their well-being and cater to their specific routines and requirements. Because of all of this, the milk ended up being of higher quality, but at a higher price.
St. Claire toiled away in the dairy, laboriously separating the cream from the milk with the use of a hand ladle. A mechanical separator is used by practically every dairy in the nation because it is more efficient and collects more cream. However, a hand ladle is more delicate and maintains the integrity of the fat globules, which results in a product that is thicker, richer, and contains more butter fat. Additionally, lactobacillus was introduced so that the cultured butter would have a taste and tang similar to that of sourdough. This was done by St. Claire.
According to Keller, the taste of Animal Farm Butter “changes throughout the year” as the seasons progress. Because of the different diets of the cows over the different seasons, there is a significant change from spring to summer to autumn to winter. The popularity of St. Claire’s butter among Keller’s clientele quickly helped spread the word about the brand. More chefs began to get in touch, in addition to former employees of The French Laundry who were now working at other restaurants with Michelin stars. Finally, in 2004, when Keller established Per Se in New York, St. Claire decided to quadruple the herd, increasing the number of cows from three to ten so that she could keep up with demand while also assuring that she could maintain production standards.
My introduction to the wonderful world of churned cream came in the form of a $12 jar of Animal Farm Butter, which I first tried in January of 2022. And around one week or so later, St. Claire left the company. She had labored in the field seven days a week for the previous twenty-two years. She replies that there is no way to stop the cows from milking. However, Butter from her Animal Farm survived. Ben and Hilary Haigh are farmers from Vermont. They bought the majority of St. Claire’s Jersey herd, as well as the name of the creamery, her bulk tanks, and the dairy equipment, with the intention of adhering to the commandments from Animal Farm.
She claims that every chef who bought a product from St. Claire’s was relieved when they found out that the supply would continue. In aisle ten, you won’t find the kind of exceptional butter that’s worthy of being served on a menu that’s been recognized for its excellence.
Even in Wisconsin, which is one of the states with the highest per capita dairy production, just a small percentage of milk is used to make butter. Gina Mode, who leads the butter program at the University of Wisconsin-affiliated Center for Dairy Research, stated that the state has more than 1,200 cheesemakers but only around fifty licensed butter makers. According to Mode, the production of butter needs more than twice as much whole milk as the production of cheese does, which results in an amazing quantity of skim milk being wasted. Delicious butter is dependent on high-quality milk, in contrast to cheese, which often contains additional flavor-masking ingredients such as salt, spices, liquid smoke, or spruce bark. Large-scale operations may make it more difficult to maintain consistent milk quality, and farmers are unable to provide their cows with their natural diet of grass, which contributes tremendously to the taste and complexity of the butter they produce.
Despite this, artisan butter manufacturers all throughout the United States, such as Ploughgate Creamery in the state of Vermont, are providing alternatives to Big Butter. Their cultured butter is a part of a rising trend that is transforming the category from a complementing condiment into something that deserves to be a star in its own right. In addition, Ploughgate Butter is included on the menus of fine dining establishments including New York’s Frenchette and Vermont’s Twin Farms. These restaurants choose to do so because of the great flavor and superb workmanship of the product.
Marisa Mauro, owner of Ploughgate and butter maker, notes that the company makes its butter in “limited amounts in a barrel-style churn.” Because more of the buttermilk is able to be drained out using the barrel type churn, the butter produced using this technique has a superior taste. Additionally, the butter produced using this method is creamier and more abundant. The use of a continuous churn, which is an automated procedure that drains less of the milk, is preferred by large producers who have surpluses of milk since it is simpler (and affects flavor and texture). It takes time to make excellent butter, just as it does for most other wonderful things.
For Chef Dan Barber of the renowned Blue Hill Farm, located close to Tarrytown, New York, butter that has been skillfully prepared gives an entrance point into a knowledge of agricultural practices. Single Udder Butter is a dish that he has been serving for the past ten years. It is designed to illustrate how different animals on the same farm, going through the same milking process, can express their age and dietary preferences via the cream. The dish features a few butters from different cows that are served side-by-side.
“Young cows consume without discrimination,” adds Barber, before going on to explain that older cows are more patient and picky in their food choices. “They are hunting for certain minerals and nutrients,” you may say. That age and knowledge makes their butter taste and seem different, he says; deliberate eaters seeking the greatest grass generate a butter with a bright yellow color and a flavor that is deeper and more well-rounded. “It’s a significant labor effort to separate the cream,” says Barber of his Single Udder Butters; blending the creams would be simpler and provide a product that is more consistent. But then he would only have one butter, and as he put it, “it doesn’t give the complete picture.”
However, in spite of the rising better butter movement, many chefs continue to be concerned that their consumers would not comprehend why it is more costly than the typical piece of butter purchased from the store. Consider anchovy butter, a luscious purée formed from the two ingredients that give it its name and which can be found on the menus of many trendy restaurants. Indeed, they are a good match. But the move is also calculated: in order to persuade customers that the meal has value, a gourmet commodity that the majority of people believe should be free (butter) has to be coupled with inexpensive but fashionable fish (anchovies).
Possibly before to sampling Animal Farm Butter, I would have benefited from hearing that argument. However, the kind of butters that are created at Ploughgate and Animal Farm are labor- and time-intensive, thus they are often only made in limited quantities. All of it takes money, and a farm or creamery can’t thrive without taking their fair skim if they want to stay in business.
Because this was the only way butter could be produced prior to the widespread establishment of creameries in the late 1800s, every single American used to consume what we now refer to as “artisan” butter. According to St. Claire, “then that whole [work of art] simply was lost.” After that came mass manufacturing as well as a method that set aside the worst quality cream for the creation of butter. Salt was added to the dish in order to mask its distinctive tastes, such as the tang that is produced by natural cultures. And the consistency of the butter changed.
The search for superior butter, which is produced gently from the milk of well-cared-for cows, is an endeavor that should be pursued even if it results in higher costs. Over the course of several years, St. Claire received correspondence from patrons of The French Laundry who had liked her butter there. It was considered by some to be the highlight of the dinner. She had a sneaking suspicion that after that first rush of fat and taste, they were hooked. Or maybe they were merely drawing a parallel between what they saw and the fading yellow sticks that they keep in their freezers at home. In any case, she opines, “I think it’s fairly shocking for people to have really nice butter,” and she says this regardless of the context.