A Saturday afternoon, early April. A small group of people is making its way through East London. The pubs are packed. It’s horse racing day. We are at Sager + Wilde in Hackney, one of my favourite wine bars in the city. There is no television here, no horses, and besides us hardly any people at a quarter to five. The sun is shining through the window and in our beaming faces: the Fatty Seven, Patrik and Maria, Josh and Mike, Johnny, Grant and I. Seven people, who with different motivations, are busy with butter. We are making a spread of what brought us together: “It’s a butter rainbow!” Maria is elated and takes a picture. For a moment I stare at my plate of spreadable fat and try to reconstruct what in God’s name brought me here.
Since my trip to Brittany three years ago, combined with all-out butter consumption, I have been fascinated by the idea of making really good butter. “This is my friend Anna. She’s very much into butter.” A line my friend Jule started using to introduce me to new friends. “OK, and why butter?” – a question I often hear in response. Because butter is just as important to me as bread. Fresh pretzels with butter. A simple pasta with butter. We always had butter at home, and no, margarine was not an option for my parents. Jean-Yves Bordier, “Artisan Beurrier & Fromager” from St. Malo, surprised me on my trip with his highly buttery flavor and its loose, almost crumbly consistency I had never before experienced. How, I have asked myself ever since, does one make such remarkable, exceptionally good butter? At that point I was fairly certain that not many people were making a career out of such a highly specific matter, and my search for fellow butter-makers commenced. I found YouTube videos of Patrik Johansson from Sweden, sitting with me at the table on this very afternoon, in which he buried butter into the forest floor and delivered his “virgin butter” in rubber boots to René Redzepi. Seeing these images my heart pounded. At the time Patrik was living in western Sweden, and I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about butter from him. When I reached out to the only e-mail address I was able to track down the answer I got was an auto-response: user unknown. I have a sip of wine and know there is no better moment than this one to finally meet Patrik in person and share some bread and butter.
Maria and he, a.k.a. the Buttervikings, have recently moved to the United Kingdom. Just off the coast of southern England, on the Isle of Wight, they run a dairy farm, producing small batches of butter and buttermilk. Josh asked why of all places they chose a little island in the North Sea on the British coast as their new home. “The island’s seclusion and limitations give us the opportunity to create butter with a very special character. The terroir, as it were.” “And why the name ‘Buttervikings’?” I followed up. “It was the Vikings, in fact, who showed the French how to produce butter. When the Viking Rollo sailed to France the French gave him a piece of land to appease him. Rollo was very pleased with the gift – today the region is known as Normandy – and in return he shared his knowledge of butter-making with the French.” I think to myself: That explains not only the name of the “butter couple” but also why that region of France in particular is world-famous for its butter.
Little of what the Buttervikings create evokes the common dairy product: fragile golden cones, delicate flower patterns, fine salt crystals. Their butter is akin to small artworks. Patrik and Mia supply upscale gastronomy, although they continue to receive lots of inquiries since word got out that René Redzepi of noma was one of the first to put their virgin butter on the table. What is special about the virgin variety: while butter in the normal production process is kneaded and washed for a comparatively long time in order to remove as much buttermilk as possible – this is what allows you to keep it for extended periods – Patrik leaves some buttermilk in the butter. “That’s where the flavour is!” he explains. The fresh, slightly acidic butter is not suited for frying a steak, nor for baking. It is made to be eaten immediately. Instead of butter today Patrik and Mia brought Brygd No. 5. No, it is not a perfume; it is an 11-month ferment of yellow peas and barely. Salty and hearty, an umami elixir.
Then we show each other our various butters. I had gotten my screw-top jar two days before at Silo in Brighton, a place where Douglas McMaster practices pre-industrial food production. Scrap utilization, conservation of resources and consistent trash avoidance are the main focus at the restaurant that does not want to call itself a restaurant. In Douglas’s kitchen as much as possible is self-produced, including the butter. “The cream has an extremely high fat content, around 50%. We cultivate it for a few days with homemade yogurt before processing it into butter,” the kitchen team tells me. The butter smells and tastes intense and cheesy. Its consistency seems fattier than the others on our plate. “Is there any animal fat in it?” Patrik asks, allowing a small amount of the Silo butter melt between his thumb and index finger. The butter transforms into a shiny film resembling lard. “I don’t think so,” I answer, slightly unsure, promising to ask about that. The butter from Brighton is not our favorite in terms of taste, but we discuss its meaty flavor a lot, a subject Johnny Drain had dealt with in depth for some time. At the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen he tested and documented whether or not the targeted and controlled cultivation of butter and its subsequent maturation create interesting, desirable nuances in flavour, as is the case with cheese. This coincidence inspired the research project: He had left butter out at room temperature for quite some time, and as he went to use it he noticed an intense smell and interesting taste. Johnny and I have known each other for a couple months. We were introduced after it came to light we were both fascinated with butter. We became pen pals in butter over the course of several months, exchanging ideas and asking each other questions, when Johnny ultimately came to Berlin to give a butter workshop at the CFL Academy. He is the one who got us all around one table that afternoon – an idea that came up right after the workshop.
The butter Grant brought with him shines a deep yellow. On Saturdays he sells it at the Druid Street Market in Bermondsey. Grant “The Buttersmith” Harrington is actually a trained chef. When he started working for Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken his first task was portioning the butter. “This was the first time I’d ever tasted a product that somehow tasted 1,000 times more intense but still like itself. It was this moment that I still can’t get out of my head, even at the time, working with other incredible products; beef dry aged for AGES that tasted beefier, ham salted that tasted, not just ‘hammier’ but literally divine. The butter was so much more buttery in magnitude. It topped them all.” Since 2014 he has been making his own cultured butter under the name “Ampersand”. He uses the milk of Jersey cows who live on a farm in Oxfordshire. Jerseys are among the oldest cattle breed in the world. They are smaller than other dairy cattle and give less milk, albeit with a higher fat content. During his time at Fäviken, Grant nurtured his vision to make butter “as buttery as possible.” Achieving a result that satisfied him after a long phase of experimentation, he started to supply small gastropubs, which in turn led to more upscale addresses requesting his butter, including the restaurants Sat Bains in Nottingham and Story in London.
What connected the various kinds of butters in front of us, including the raw butter from Lyle’s in Shoreditch: they were all soured, or more precisely, cultured. Before churning the cream into butter, lactic acid bacteria are mixed in, that is, live cultures that activate the fermentation process, similar to cheese or yoghurt. What happens here: the bacteria break down a part of the lactose into lactic acid. This changes the taste of the originally sweet cream and creates acidic flavours. Contrary to yoghurt production, mesophilic lactic acid bacteria are used as “acid activators” in culturing butter. They prefer average conditions, not extreme ones, and thrive at temperatures from 25 to 30 °C. Johnny added, “The flavour of butter comes not only from its source, milk, but especially from injecting it with live cultures and the length of the fermentation.” While raw milk naturally contains bacteria that can trigger the souring process, pasteurized cream is most common in butter production. How long the butter cultures before being churned into butter depends on the desired taste result. Grant gives the process a bit more than a week. He tastes it continuously to catch the best flavour. Contrary to many other producers who use sea salt, Grant kneads Himalayan rock salt into his butter by hand: “It is slightly bitter, and I like that touch.”
In London Josh and Mike are better known as Blanch & Shock. The name speaks to both culinary creativity and to the will to influence our future with sustainable action. At their previous pop-up restaurants, supper clubs and catering gigs the two started to bake bread and make butter, and they brought both to our meeting. Josh shows us his exceptional creation on the table: cornhusk butter. “One of my most favorite ingredients is hay,” Josh told us, “but I was looking for something new. And I found cornhusks.” He steamed them first and roasted them in the oven and then vacuum sealed them in a blend of heavy cream, crème fraiche and yoghurt and left them to infuse – three days at room temperature and two days in the refrigerator. After the infused cream had been churned to butter, he salted it, wrapped it in fresh steamed cornhusks and left it vacuum-sealed in the refrigerator to mature for about a month. The end result is caramel-coloured and tastes slightly sweet. It reminds me of dessert. Along with Grant’s butter we selected this one as our top.
Trying to cut through the growing layer of fat in our stomachs with more wine, Patrik and Mia start to mix all of the butters together. A little Brygd and a few cornhusk fibers: “This will go really well with their most expensive champagne,” Patrick affirmed. Meanwhile more people have gathered around our table in curiosity. One of them is talking to Grant, and it turns out he is the sommelier at Fäviken and is helping out tonight at Sager + Wilde. We order another bottle from him, not the most expensive champagne, but it goes well with the butter, with the bread, with us, and we decide to throw a Fat Fest next year.