There was a little thing we would do as chil- dren – one of those absurd, sweet, unques- tioned acts which populate childhood – con- sisting of holding buttercups underneath our chins to determine whether or not we liked butter. If your chin reflected the golden glow from the flower, there it was, the indelible proof of your affection for the substance.
My chin glowed gold, naturally – I was a greedy child – but in fact butter per se is a food I rarely eat. Unlike my mother whose passion for it sees her thickly mounting it on to sandwiches, toast, muffins, hotcakes, scones, croissants or whatever takes butter, despite the fact that in most other areas she exercises admirable restraint. I gave up butter after living in a country where olive oil reigned supreme; once back in Australia it seemed wise to continue renouncing it, especially given the climate of disapproval which surrounded it from the health point of view.
Much of that disapproval has since abated as people realised that the trans-fats in the allegedly ‘healthier’ margarine were as re- sponsible for raising cholesterol levels as was butter. More importantly, it abated with the welcome revival of interest in ‘real’ food and in the extraordinary, incomparable properties butter endows to cooking and to eating in general.
However, according to Australian butter-maker and cheese authority Richard Thomas, Australians ‘are getting palmed off with a shit product, insofar as supermarket brands of salted butter are concerned’ – the choice of most consumers in the country. Richard claims that almost all entry-level supermarket butter is rancid to some point. The reason
for this is that the cream used in making butter – butter being the fat of the milk, the outcome of fresh or fermented cream or milk which has been churned – is a by-product of the skim milk powder sent to Asia and the Middle East. ‘Australians don’t know what good butter is because we don’t make much of it,’ he says. Another factor is the compound in Australian pastures that makes cows produce more lipase, a naturally occurring enzyme that breaks down the fat in milk so calves can digest it, but which can also give butter a rancid flavour.
Some butter-makers in Australia are now beginning to make cultured butter in a bid to create a local equivalent of classic European ones such as the French butters from Isigny and Lescure. Cultured butter is basically butter made with sour cream, or a cream to which cultures have been added. These cultures digest the lactose, or milk sugar, transforming it into lactic acid which is what elevates butter from ordinary to sweet, fruity, herbal, nutty – in other words, complex and luscious, rich and creamy.
In Sydney there is a heavenly bakery called Bourke Street Bakery outside which on an ordinary day I have queued patiently in order to purchase pastries and breads. Owner/bakers Paul Allam and David McGuinness in their ‘ultimate baking companion’ say in the introduction to the fat coffee-table compendium that they ‘have always imported butter from Europe, first from Denmark and now from Belgium.’ On a visit to the kitchens of top chefs you will find that many use French cul- tured butters. And the butter will be unsalted, there being no modern use for salted butter, as salt was only added to prolong shelf life.
So. For all my self-righteous abstention from butter, there are forms it takes to which I effortlessly succumb. At Christmas time one of those forms just happens to be Brandy Butter, melting into the wedge of my sister’s annual moist, dense, fruit-rich pudding. For this, do seek out the best cultured butter you can find!
In a large bowl whisk 100g room- temperature butter (Danish Lurpak or French Lescure) until pale and creamy, then beat in 225g icing sugar until perfectly combined. Add 3 – 5 tablespoons Cognac to taste, cover and chill until ready to be served.