A Better Butter by Far

Extracts from the series: Business of Food

The UK market is dominated by salty, unripe butter, yet a recent taste test proved that unsalted varieties from Orkney and Normandy have the better taste

Trawling the shelves for some butter worth spreading on a slow-fermented loaf made by Pittenweem craftsman baker Ken Adamson, I could take my pick. Native or foreign? Salted or unsalted? – English, Scottish, Finnish, French, Swiss Alpine, Dutch or Danish? There were ‘spreadables’ too, conveniently combining the spreadability of margarine with some of the superior taste of butter. But somehow they did not seem like the right match for Ken’s good bread.

In the end, curiosity prevailed as a month’s supply of different butters, both salted and unsalted, went into the basket. It was the beginning of ‘the butter collection’. A trip to Orkney added an unpasteurised farmhouse butter made from some Guernsey cows’ milk. Then there was a top price, unsalted Normandy butter and two varieties of English farmhouse butter made with leftover whey from cheesemaking. Which is when choosing the butter for Ken’s bread developed into a tasting session, with eight butter-tasters round the table, keen to join in the search for the best butter.

We started with the unsalted butters. Too bland, said the under thirties in the group. Except for two, the Normandy butter which was noticeably stronger – a ‘cheesy’ flavoured butter they opined – and the Orkney butter which had a more delicate ‘nutty’ flavour.

Both were in the category of ripened or ‘cultured’ butters, made by a different method than simply churning fresh cream into butter. The over-sixties were very keen on these tasty butters which they thought were more like butter as-it-used-to-be. Their butter eating habits, influenced by wartime rationing, had developed from the custom of never spreading both butter and jam on bread at the same time. It was either or, so the taste of butter had always been important. Sold by the grocer from blocks, then wrapped in greaseproof paper it was treasured for special occasions. Margarine was for everyday. They thought that the taste of butter had deteriorated since it had become less of a rare treat. Or was it just that nostalgia made the memory sweeter?