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A Rich History

by Elaine Khosrova

Hardcover, 344 pages, Workman Pub Co, List Price: $25.95 |


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A Rich History
Elaine Khosrova

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Food writer and chef Elaine Khosrova tells the story of butter.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about Butter

From happy Neolithic-era accident to inspiration for student protests to tabletop staple, butter has had quite the ride over the past 10,000 years. A new book tells the story. Lew Rovertson/Getty Images/StockFood hide caption

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Lew Rovertson/Getty Images/StockFood

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Butter

Grass, Cud, Cream

The Epping butter is most highly esteemed in London and its neighbourhood; great part of it is made from cows which feed during the summer months in Epping Forest, where the leaves and shrubby plants are understood greatly to contribute to its superior flavour.
—JOSIAH TWAMLEY, Essays on the Management of Dairy, 1816

I LIVE BETWEEN TWO SMALL DAIRY FARMS IN UPSTATE New York. At both ends of the dirt road that fronts my house, cows amble up and down the slanted pastures most of the year, chewing on the landscape. I often marvel at how their bodies transform the raw weeds and green of the field into snow-white milk. The fact that their milk is laden with the supple fat that men conjure into golden butter seems all the more incredible. There's a Rumpelstiltskin-like magic to these dairy conversions. Even if modern science can explain the processes in cold detail, I find them no less dazzling. In fact, as I discovered writing this book, knowing all the intricate workings of animal nature and human endeavor that turn plant life into butter only added to my fascination.

And yet butter is uniformly taken for granted. It is common, after all. The girl next door, lovely but overlooked. Even for me, a food professional with more than two decades of experience as a pastry chef, test kitchen editor, and food writer, butter had long lived in the culinary shadows. My work paid and trained me to seek out the exotic, the celebrity foods, the Next Big Thing. Not a simple yellow stick that's in everyone's fridge. Although I cooked and baked often with butter and always had it on the table, I hardly gave this dairy staple much thought. It wasn't until several years ago, when I was assigned an editorial project to taste, describe, and rate about two dozen different brands from creameries around the world, that I did a double take on butter. On the tasting table were bricks of butter from as far away as New Zealand, Italy, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and France, plus domestic brands from Vermont, Wisconsin, California, and places in between. At the time, the task seemed like a redundant one. Butter is so elemental, I thought, how different from one another could they really be?

But as I examined and tasted each sample, I was surprised that no two were alike. I found nuances in color, consistency, milkiness, salt content, sweetness, acidity, freshness, even nutty and herbal notes. Some glistened; others were matte. Some butters slumped as they sat at room temperature, others stood firm. Several had a fresh, lactic taste while a few were cultured and more tangy. One was made from the milk of goats, another from water buffalo. Cataloging this global collection, with their odd labels and unfamiliar names, I began to sense that these sticks and bricks represented both the universal and the particular of this thing we call butter (which has at least fifty-seven aliases around the world; see appendix B). All the products were essentially made the same way—from churning milk fat—yet each sample was distinguishable from another. It was as if every butter brand was a kind of message in a bottle, relaying a distinct sense of place.

It turns out that my impression wasn't just a romantic one. Every detail of a particular butter's character is indeed formed from the unique commingling of three living variables: man, plant, and beast. They work as a kind of relay team, beginning with the plant forage (or ration) that feeds the dairy animal, which in turn gives milk to the farmer, who then supplies the butter maker with cream, which is then churned into butter (and buttermilk). In combination, all of these individual players and conditions account for both the subtle and substantial butter differences I detected on the tasting table that day. As this trio of live factors varies from one place and time to another, sweet butter can express locality in a very pure, direct way. (Other dairy products, like yogurt and cheese, can make a similar claim, but these fermented products generally require more time and biological intervention to produce. Uncultured butter, on the other hand, can be borne almost immediately.)

Before dairy industrialization began in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century, the local terroir of a butter was much in evidence; every farmhouse was in essence a tiny artisan creamery, dispensing its version of the stuff (for better or worse). But by the twentieth century—the era when men and machines would completely displace generations of farmwives and dairymaids in the production of butter—the new milk co-ops and automated creameries ushered in conformity, consistency, and a new standard of freshness. As this industrial dairy model grew, butter from the factory churn came to reflect the technology of megaproducers rather than the terroir of local farms and small-scale makers. National brands emerged, which meant you could buy butter in, say, Michigan that tasted identical to one on the shelf in Maryland. (We've come to take this convenient uniformity for granted too, but it's a very recent phenomenon in the long arc of dairy history.)

Now, in the twenty-first century, technology has been thrown in reverse. A "slow butter" revivalism is emerging, especially where the demand for local products and the lure of artisan food is high. The ranks of these new outliers on the butter-making scene include mostly entrepreneurial low-tech dairy folk looking to sustain their farms and way of life. But there's also a sizable troupe of chefs, avid foodists, and staunch do-it-yourselfers—all batch-churning their own microbutters for an enthusiastic niche of eaters.

Lauding this movement is not to suggest that there's anything wrong with industrial butter production. Indeed, as detailed in chapter 6, the advent of dairy factories in the late nineteenth century greatly raised butter standards across the board and gave it a new threshold of freshness. But whenever a traditional food is rediscovered by artisans, we stand to gain interesting choices, perchance even more delicious, creative, and/or healthful ones. (Consider the modern bread revolution, for example, or the neochocolate scene.) Politically there can be benefits as well, when we get to vote our values by buying less processed, more locally crafted foods that short cut the farm-to-fork journey.

Butter allows another kind of trip too. For the inquisitive eater who savors more than just the taste of things, butter's story is a ticket to appreciating the mighty role a simple food can play in the course of human events. One of the oldest of man-made edibles, butter's history is our history. In part, the purpose of this book is to show how the life and times of butter have been deeply entwined with much that has gone on far from the kitchen and creamery. Beginning with early butter practices devised for the religious, spiritual, and medicinal needs of communities, to its impact on empire building and technology of the Industrial Revolution, and later to butter's twentieth-century battle with margarine makers and fat-free zealots, this is a food, unlike any other, whose history reveals our ambitions as much as our appetite.

The contemporary butter world, in all its multicultural wonder, is no less remarkable. In the course of doing research for this book, I traveled on three continents and across the United States, each stop adding another strong thread to the weave of butter's modern narrative. Of course, I also gleaned many facts about butter from books, articles, and online sources, but for the full sensorial experience of butter and the people and regions it comes from, I had to dust off mypassport. To see the making of butter from water buffalo milk in Punjab, India, and taste it fresh from the churn was nothing like watching and sampling sheep butter making in California and cow's butter in Brittany and industrial butter making in Wisconsin.

Front-line food study like this is called field research, but to me it was more like butter hunting. Capturing firsthand details helped me construct a time capsule of butter life as it exists now, as well as record some of the ancient methods that are rapidly disappearing in many remote areas, where new generations have eschewed their parents' subsistence chores and occupations. Working the butter beat also led me to some interesting encounters on the fringes of dairydom. I met with a former Buddhist nun to learn about the intricacies of Tibetan butter carving, and with various scientists to understand udders, soil, and fat metabolism. I spent a week in a large fridge with the artist who sculpts the Iowa State Fair butter cow each year, and I met with a New Jersey man to see his vast personal collection of vintage butter making equipment and ephemera. I've toured the Butter Museum in Cork, Ireland, the Maison du Beurre in Brittany, and gazed up at the infamous Butter Tower in Rouen, France. And in bakeries, restaurants, and culinary schools, I've watched chefs work their magic with butter.

Still, the most essential players in the story of butter aren't the people or institutions that I've met or who appear at various points in its timeline. That honor goes to the animals that first make the milk that begets butter. The true provenance of butter isn't just cultural; it's also anatomical.

WE OWE THE PLEASURE of every buttery morsel to a legion of four-legged farmstead moms. Because these udder-equipped mothers start to make milk as soon as their newborns arrive and for many months after, we have become the beneficiaries of a seemingly perpetual lactic supply. From this daily cascade of animal milk, butter makers extract the richest portion—cream—to churn into the solids we call butter. (It's possible to churn whole, nonhomogenized milk into butter too, but the process takes much longer and is trickier to manage.)

Considering what causes maternity and milk in the first place, one might argue that butter actually begins with sex, usually with the tryst of a bull and cow that makes a baby calf. And more than a century ago that would have been true. But since the invention of artificial insemination for livestock, this carnal connection to butter is no longer a given. Either by philosophical choice or by necessity, only small dairies (including goat and sheep operations) rely on animal attraction to trigger pregnancy and thereby lactation. Otherwise, many dairy gals never even see a bull (or buck or ram)—let alone cavort with one.

Although maternity flips the switch of milk production in many species all across the world, none make it so abundantly as the kinds of livestock that have become synonymous with dairy farming. Cows especially, but producers also count on the milk from sheep, goats, yak, buffalo, and camels. All of these animals belong to a mixed race of champion milk makers known as ruminants, who share some distinct anatomical features: a three- or four-sectioned stomach and a mouth equipped with an upper "dental pad" instead of teeth. It's these unique body parts—which serve to harvest and ferment plants—that make the lactating ruminant a virtual processing plant on legs, able to turn whole fields of green into butter­fat-laden milk. Ruminant milk varies as much as the mothers that produce it. A ewe, for example, will give milk with twice the fat content of cow's milk; goat's milk has fat molecules that are smaller and more digestible, but it lacks carotene so goat butter is white; milk from a yak has less milk sugar (lactose) and more protein than cow's milk; camel's milk is similar to goat's milk in composition, but it can have up to three times as much vitamin C; and the milk of water buffalo has 100 percent more fat than cow's milk.

Cheese makers have long used the idiosyncrasies in different animal milks to their advantage—think of all the choices in the cheese aisle between cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo products. But for most butter makers, cow's milk is still sine qua non. Delicious butters made from other ruminant milks can be found around the world (one of my favorites was from a water buffalo in India)—but the practical fact is that cows are the most generous, manageable, and affordable source of butterfat, especially in these modern times. The average yield of milk from a cow in the fourteenth century was between 140 to 170 gallons per season; the twenty-first-century Holstein cow now gives an average of 2,574 gallons per lactation. Medieval milk yield records were so low partly because calves got their fair share and because the cows were hand-milked in the field by dairymaids, not by machine. But the greater reason is that cattle were valued primarily for their labor in the fields and only incidentally as a source of milk. They were neither fed nor bred for high milk production, as they have been over the past two centuries. Generations of modern cows have been subject to efficient mechanical or robotic milking equipment, extended lactating periods, and synthetic hormones to increase their milk output.

Abundance, however, is no guarantee of quality. Butter makers continually monitor their cream supply for flaws, knowing full well that it's a capricious commodity. Like milk, it expresses the history of ever-changing conditions, both internal and external to the animal, and each batch of churned cream translates this history to the butter it becomes, affecting the butter's color, density, richness, tanginess, sweetness, and flavor nuances.

Professional butter makers will read, sniff, and measure these subtle variations and adapt their methods accordingly (as described in chapter 8), but the cream's inherent chemical and physical nuances, or lack thereof, can make the difference between a ho-hum butter and a remarkable one. To some extent, when you taste a great butter, you're savoring the sensitive workings of a hidden ecosystem operating inside every milk-making ruminant. This internal apparatus is the precursor to all that happens in the creamery. Like most things in nature, it's ingenious and intricate. In essence, to give butterfat, a ruminating mother plays host to a long procession of digestive ploys whereby anatomy meets botany in order to rearrange chemistry.

THE CREAM-RICH MILK THAT a pastured cow deposits twice a day in the milking parlor begins in the grassy sward beyond her barn home, where she'll typically dine on different kinds of cultivated grasses and legumes, as well as on some wild flowers. If her belly is feeling a little off that day, she might also nibble on certain herbs or shrubs if they're available; cows will self-medicate if given the remedial plant choice in the pasture. While grazing, if a cow spies a clump of grass—or if she's lucky, a tasty patch of clover—she uses her tongue to lasso a bunch of it. She tears the greens free by pinching them between her bottom teeth and a thick upper gum area—the dental pad referred to earlier. (If she could smile broadly, you'd see that she has no top front teeth, just a dark leathery band.) Inside her mouth, the grass gets moistened with saliva and then swallowed—but only temporarily. This wet grassy mixture stored in the rumen, the first compartment of her stomach, will eventually return to her mouth. But first she'll continue dining on the pasture for about an hour, lopping off and swallowing vegetation. If the grass is soft and high, she can take in a hefty eighty to ninety pounds of fresh plant matter in that time.

Then our gal will find a nice place to settle down, often reclining near others in the herd and almost always listing toward her left side. (For some unknown reason, cows are more comfy this way.) Here she'll leisurely regurgitate all the food she has just collected. Cows rather enjoy this recycled course, which is commonly referred to as chewing their cud. She'll repeatedly bring up a wad of saliva-soaked grass, called a bolus, from her rumen back into her mouth. This soggy plant matter is then chewed from side to side (not up and down as we do) by the lateral action of molars, which slowly breaks down leaves, stems, and other field food into smaller, more digestible pieces.

This macerating (or ruminating) phase takes a while. There's no such thing as fast food in the life of a pastured cow. Chewing cud requires many hours and much saliva (cows produce between ten and forty gallons of saliva every day), especially if the plant food is wild and has been growing for several months. The plant matter gets sheared and smeared, much like the texture of pulled pork. As a result, all the nutrients freed from behind the fibrous skin of plants become prepped for digestion.

If she's completely pasture fed, a cow will generally spend about eight hours a day foraging, eight hours ruminating, and the balance resting. (Her rumen can hold, on average, a whopping fifty gallons of partially digested food.) If she's given dry rations from the farmer—as is typical in winter or at high-density industrial dairies—her feeding time can be cut in half.

MACERATION IS A MECHANICAL precursor for the wonder to come, the answer to this biological riddle: How does a ruminant mom transform her lean veggie diet of plants, which generally has a mere 3 percent fat, into milk that can have as much as eight times more fat (depending on the animal) than her feed, thereby giving us the unctuous raw material for butter. I voiced this puzzler to Dr. Dan Schaefer, an animal science expert at the University of Wisconsin, the afternoon I sat in his office on campus, surrounded by walls the color of milk. He paused for some time before responding. Not often asked to explain such graduate-level phenomena to a lay enthusiast, the professor was clearly making some mental edits.
The answer to my question, I eventually parsed from the professor's measured explanation, starts in the bacterial kingdom inside each animal's four-roomed stomach. A cow's grassy meal is plumbed down the anatomical pipeline that is her esophagus, into her quadruplex stomach.

On the food's arrival, a horde of microbial minions cling to the partially weakened plant fibers and then the microbes launch an enzyme attack that breaks apart the cell walls. "They are compelled to do this," Dr. Schaefer noted, "because there's no oxygen present, so they're always starved for energy." With these fibers vanquished, other microbial characters can move in and take hold of embedded carbohydrate and protein, busting them apart into tiny building blocks of sugar, peptides, and amino acids. (If you've ever wondered where the green in "grass fed" goes, this is the answer: into that microbial soup.) Since a cow's big belly holds no oxygen, this digestive offensive continues as a process of fermentation, not unlike making beer.

All this biochemical shape shifting holds a key to the eventual richness that makes butter taste so delectable. Once the grassy matter is broken down into its most naked elements—carbon and hydrogen molecules that are strung together like bracelets—other bacteria can swarm in and recombine these elements into fat compounds called volatile fatty acids, or VFAs. (Don't be misled by the wordvolatile; these are good guys in the scheme of dairy things. Biochemists use the term to refer to compounds that are quick to change.)

VFAs matter greatly to a cow's constitution, not just her milk making. As little chains of carbon—six or less strung together—they become the fuel, the biological octane that a cow runs on. "The animal feeds the microbes that feed the animal," Dr. Schaefer explained, neatly summing up the co­dependence at work here. And we get the makings for butter.

Although the professor had demystified for me much of the grass-to-butter phenomenon, another question came in its wake: How do we account for the fact that milk fat content and composition—and therefore its butter—can vary from one breed of cow to another, given the same meal? Why is milk from a Guernsey different from milk from a Holstein? I headed across campus to pose it to Dr. Laura Hernandez, one of Dr. Schaefer's colleagues. Hernandez is a professor in the dairy science department who specializes in lactation physiology. She's an expert on the inner workings of the udder, cream's construction site. Unsurprisingly, her office shelf is lined with more than two dozen cow figurines.

"Only about half the fat comes from the diet," Hernandez explained. "The other fats in milk are mobilized from the cow's own body fat and are assembled into milk fat in the mammary gland."

Inside these glands, the resident cells act like matchmakers, linking up the small fatty acids, one to another, to create longer chains of fatty acids. But the length of these bionecklaces vary greatly. It's those variations in the length and type of these fatty chains that partly explain why one cow's cream is slightly different—or better—from another's. Although diet is a major reason why one animal's cream can trump others, anatomy is still a considerable factor. Given the same meal—and the health of the animals being equal—some breeds are just better at linking the constellations of molecules that give us more or better-tasting cream.

Even so, cow selection among dairy farmers looking to generate above-average cream is not a simple choice; picking one breed over another is based on many other factors besides milk composition: Climate, cost, frequency of milking, forage available, animal temperament, hardiness, and size all factor in, as well as what products the farm aims to market. And when you live day in and day out with animals, there's some personal bias too. "In my experience, Jerseys are a bit too fussy and the bulls can be nasty," Steffan Schneider told me. The farmer in charge of Hawthorne Valley Farm, a four-hundred-acre biodynamic dairy, creamery, and vegetable grower in the Hudson Valley, discovered Brown Swiss cows on a trip to Wisconsin; gradually he switched from Holsteins to the toast-colored Brown Swiss. "They have a very calm temperament," Schneider said.

Since many large dairies succeed or fail based on the volume of their milk production, Holsteins continue to be the most common cow in our national farmscape. They've been bred to ably top the charts of milk output (as much as seventy-two thousand pounds per year) but not necessarily make the most or best butter. Although their churned milk fat can result in very satisfactory butter (mostly what's used for inexpensive supermarket brands), its cream is not the first choice of artisan butter makers (or cheese makers). These dairy crafters look to other breeds to source their dream cream, one that's high in milk fat, has a good proportion of milk solids, and has a fresh, rich aroma. Some makers go even further in cream selection, like groundbreaking chef and agrarian Dan Barber, who has churned the cream of each of his cows separately to determine which one makes the best "single-udder butter."

Breeds and their respective milks may have many distinctions, but increasingly these lines are being blurred, now that artificial insemination has been standard practice for several generations. "There are very few pure strains of cows anymore," admitted Schneider.

ANIMAL ANATOMY MAY BE the car that drives the making of milk fat for butter, but I soon discovered that the kind of fuel in the system also greatly affects what comes out of the churn. And I learned too that dairy farmers have a language unto themselves when discussing what to feed their milk-giving wards. Farmers I spoke with routinely tossed out words like forage, silage, haylage, baleage, and alpage, as well as the more exotic references to forbs, silvopasture, and even browse (a noun). All of these terms translate into a surprisingly detailed vegetarian menu of fresh or fermented foods for various ruminants.

Such lingo belied the impression I'd had about livestock feeding: that it was all very straightforward. Put the ruminants in a grassy pasture and let nature do the rest. What could be simpler, after all, than feeding an animal that eats directly off the wild earth? This is true in theory. But in practice, often a ruminant will need extra servings of grasses or grains to supply the special energy and protein needed for keeping the quantity and quality of her milk high. (Every milk molecule is built around protein; if a cow's dietary supply doesn't meet her udder's demand for this building-block protein, her milk supply quickly decreases.)

Hence the land itself demands a farmer's attention if a herd is going to depend on it for mealtimes. Such work involves skilled agronomy, with alternating steps such as rotational grazing, seeding, weed control, liming, and soil testing. One Irish dairy farmer told me, as I kneeled down to run my fingers through his impossibly thick soft pasture, that in actuality he considered himself a grass farmer. "If I take care of the grass, it'll take care of the cows." He watched that the cows clipped the grass in an area just to a certain level, before he moved them to another. "This keeps them distributing their natural fertilizer around the pasture," he explained. "By the time they return to that pasture in about a month, the grass has regrown and is ready for a new clipping."

The Irish butter I sampled on that visit was as yellow as a daffodil; its vibrant hue was a result of young, fresh, and plentiful grazing grasses. Such healthy new grass is loaded with hidden beta-carotene—a yellow pigment and antioxidant found in grass. (We don't see it in plants because the green chlorophyll masks it.) After a cow eats, the beta-carotene is stored in the animal's body fat. When that fat is mobilized to make milk, the carotene comes with it, lodged in the fat of the milk. But why is milk white? Because the pigment is concealed by a membrane that cloaks each fat globule in milk. With agitation, however—like the churning during butter making—the cloak of each membrane is broken and the pigment is released. Yellow beta-carotene becomes visible in the butterfat, and even more so once the buttermilk is drained off. (Some butters made from other animals' milk, like goat butter and water buffalo butter, are naturally white because these animals don't store beta-carotene in their fat the way cows and yak do. Instead, they convert it to vitamin A, which is colorless.)

Color isn't the only reason pasture is preferable for dairy products. In the interests of ideal flavor, for instance, some European farmers are prohibited from feeding dairy animals fermented stored hay (such as silage or baleage) or rations. Under the European Union's celebrity food certification program known as PDO (protected designation of origin), the making of certain local traditional dairy products—such as cheese and butter—is highly regulated, right down to what's allowed in the field or feeding trough. PDOs can specify that cows eat fresh pasture or dry hay exclusively. So it is in the region of Isigny in Normandy, France, where the local PDO butter can only be made from the milk of cows that graze near the sea marshes of the region; there the grass is rich in iodine and other trace minerals that lend Isigny butter a distinctive taste.

Butter quality can also be affected by transhumance, the centuries-old practice of organized migration by dairy folk and their herds that continues in mountainous regions around the world, but especially in Europe. The transhumance is strictly seasonal and altitudinal; the animals are escorted up to wild mountain pastures for grazing from late spring until late summer to eat grasses, forbs (aka weeds) and wildflowers. When the threat of cold and snow begins to bear down at the end of the warmer months, the animals are herded back down to the lowland valleys or plains for the fall and winter seasons. Today transhumance is often carried out more practically, using trucks to transfer the animals between highlands and lowlands. But the traditional walking migration still continues in various rural villages. Where it does endure, the transhumance is often marked by a community procession and a celebration to honor the ruminants and their rich seasonal milk.

Dairy folk have long recognized the organoleptic benefits (meaning the whole experience of taste, scent, color, and texture) that wild high-altitude pastures confer to milk, cheese, and butter. Now it's also understood that grazing on these alpine lands confers a nutritional bonus too. Milk from animals that roam these rich highlands contains significantly more of the so-called good dairy fat known as CLA (conjugated lino­leic acid), which boosts the immune system and metabolism. (According to Dr. Hernandez, this can also happen in silage-fed cows if you optimize their nutrition.) But fortunately for us who live below the alpine level, the healthful X factor is not so much the altitude as the sumptuous diversity of the unspoiled pasture. Choosing butter derived from the milk of animals that chow down on a smorgasbord of spring and summer forage is healthier at any elevation.

By now it should be clear that nature is an uncanny architect of milk fat. Plants and animals together get full credit for creating the delicious richness that constitutes butter. Yet without man, there'd be nothing to churn this fat to the point of no return, where it separates into golden kernels floating in a white pool of buttermilk. Butter is mankind's invention; it wouldn't exist without our desire for it. And yet, like many prehistoric food inventions, its earliest occurrence was altogether unintended.