There are foods for which some people are willing to pay a premium price – lobster, aged steak, and truffles come to mind. But you might not expect butter to be on that list. Writer Alex Halberstadt wrote an article for SAVEUR called “Is the World’s Best Butter Worth 50 Dollars a Pound?” where he found the answer to his own question is – yes. He talked with host Francis Lam about Diane St. Clair, the artisan butter maker behind a fascinating and highly sought-after creamy creation.
Francis Lam: Alex, you wrote a story about phenomenal, unique butters. I have to ask, what makes a great butter great?
Alex Halberstadt: Throughout human history, we've had an awesome relationship with butter. The human race has held butter in high regard; the Tibetans still make sacred sculptures out of butter, and the ancient Scandinavians used to be buried with barrels of butter in their coffin. That's because people saw butter as something almost miraculous. We've largely forgotten that, because, honestly, I don't think anybody wants to be buried with a stick of Land O' Lakes.
FL: When you say it's a miracle of nature, it is woven into so much mythology and history. Tell me about the people who focus on butter.
AH: For me, one thing that makes butter worth thinking about is that it's not cheese or pastry – it’s not made. You can only do so much: you have a cow, it gives you cream, and then you make butter out of it, essentially by beating up the cream. There's not all that much to it. It's essentially a pure presentation of the animal, the land that it comes from, and the person who makes it. As with wine, there's not that much intervention.
FL: What does great butter taste like to you?
AH: There's a creamy, sweet opening, and then – especially with cultured butter – you get a tangy, sour note in the middle. There’s a long finish that sometimes reminds me of hazelnuts. It's very complete and fun – and incredibly delicious.
FL: You spent time with a renowned butter maker for your story; her name is Diane St. Clair.
AH: I did. I went to a little town in Vermont called Orwell – on the western side of the state – where she has her dairy farm. I remember driving for what seemed like half an hour down a service road and finally seeing her house. It was pelting rain; she came out wearing rubber boots, dressed like a New England farmer. She took me into her barn where there were 11 Jersey cows. We spent most of that day ankle-deep in mud, trudging around her pasture, barn, and little creamery that she has right off the barn.
We talked about butter; we made butter and tasted some butter. My sense of Diane was that she is a true believer. It was like spending time with somebody who cares about one aspect of their life so deeply that she spends all of her time with her animals. I think these cows, for her, are more like children than livestock. She spends more time caring for them – feeding, milking, petting, and talking to them – than anyone I've ever seen. It was like watching someone with 11 very large dogs.
FL: What makes her butter fantastic? Is there a technique or culture she uses?
AH: I asked her that same question. What she told me is that there is no “trick;” the trick is getting the very best cream you can. Because once you have the cream, there's not all that much you can do with it. Culturing butter is essentially letting the cream ferment, letting it go a bit sour to give it more flavor; she does do that. Then she uses a small mixer to churn the butter.
But mostly, it is the animals. It’s the Jersey cows, which are light brown cows that are not very popular with most large, commercial butter makers. They don't give as much milk as the Holsteins, the cows we know from the children's books – the black and white spotted cows – which are much more productive. Holsteins give a lot more milk, but the milk isn't quite as rich. Diane explained to me that this dandelion yellow color for butter is also the result of the Jersey cows because they give a dark cream, which creates a darker colored butter. Several other butter makers also use Jerseys because they just claim it gives a richer cream than the Holsteins.
Of course, that's just a tiny part of the equation. I think she is fanatical about the feed that she gives to her cows. In the spring, the cows eat grass in the pasture. In the late fall and winter months, they eat hay. She doesn't give them silage – fermented hay – which a lot of farmers feed their cows in the winter.
It’s the attention that she gives to the animals. They seem so well looked after, so cared about, so thought about. I'm not trying to be mystical; I'm not trying to suggest that happy cows give incredible butter. But there isn't any production technique or trick that I witnessed. Her creamery is about the size of a large bathroom. It's got an industrial refrigerator, a sink, mixer, and thermometers. There’s no magical laboratory where the magic happens. She cares a lot for the land and her cows.
Diane struck me as a very ambitious person in a lot of ways – by which I mean artistically ambitious, not commercially ambitious. I think if she wanted to make more money and get another 100 Jerseys, she probably could, but this is how she likes to do it. Her operation is pretty much her; there weren't a lot of farmhands that I saw. I think she likes to do this by herself. She's very adamant, like the winemaker. She says that the only thing that makes great butter is great cream.
FL: She sounds fascinating.
AH: She is. And her butter is definitely the most intense and flavorful I've ever tasted. It's a little unusual; it has almost the consistency of vanilla ice cream rather than this dense block that we're used to. I could totally see why somebody would plunk down 50 dollars for a bag of it, which is not an easy thing to do.
Alex Halberstadt writes for The New York Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and SAVEUR. He is also the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus. Read his SAVEUR article about the quest for amazing butter here.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.