If you're spending £3 on a top-notch loaf of bread, you don't want to spread any old stuff on it. Emma Hughes meets one of the new breed of butter entrepreneurs whose fine wares are earning recognition across the country.
‘I still love eating it, especially on really good bread,’ Grant Harrington tells me, casting an affectionate glance at the butter churn standing in his Oxfordshire workshop.
He pauses. ‘And, you know, sometimes just by itself.’
Like cheese, I ask? He grins. ‘Like cheese.’
At just 25, Mr Harrington is putting British butter back on the map. Four years ago, the former chef launched the rather oddly-named “& (Ampersand)”. Today, he supplies handmade cultured butter to the UK’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as amateurs who bulk-buy online and pick it up from Maltby Street Market in south-east London.
He’s a man on a mission: he wants us to treat butter with a little more reverence. It helps that, after decades of the low-fat orthodoxy, sugar and gluten are the new big bad wolves. Also handy is the fact that ‘people are so much more knowledgeable about bread now,’ says Mr Harrington – if you’re spending £3 on a loaf of sourdough, you don’t want to slap any old spread on it.
Most modern butter is made from ‘sweet cream’, which is quickly pasteurised to kill off bacteria, including the beneficial stuff, but this is a recent development. Butter used to be a labour of love – pasteurisation wasn’t standardised until 1943 and hand-churning was the norm.
The manpower that went into producing butter was reflected in the fact that it was strictly limited during rationing, with adults allowed 2oz (about four tablespoons) each week.
‘Raymond said it was slightly too salty. I took a less salty one in and he thought it wasn’t salty enough. The next batch he said was too buttery.’
Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast, opens with his mother buttering bread – he would grow up to write hundreds of recipes showcasing butter. ‘It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you,’ he writes.
When rich food came back with a bang during the 1970s, we got blasé about butter. It was reframed as a means to unctuous sauces, flaky pastry and tender cakes, rather than being an end in itself (‘more butter, more salt’ remains the unofficial motto of culinary schools everywhere).
Mr Harrington, who started his career at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, used to think along these lines. Then, he went to Sweden to work at Fäviken, the restaurant that’s regularly named one of the best in the world.
The first thing chef Magnus Nilsson gave him to try was butter. Creamy, tangy and full-flavoured, it was a world away from what he was used to. ‘I couldn’t get it out of my head,’ he remembers.
Smitten, he begged to be allowed to work on the farm it came from. Butter in Sweden is held in high esteem, with prized varieties including ‘dewdrop butter’, made from cream cultured with bacteria that occurs naturally in dew, and ‘bog butter’, which is matured underneath low-pH peat.
‘I realised there was nobody in England doing anything like this,’ Mr Harrington recalls.
‘I thought “I need to bring this home”.’
When he got back to England in 2013, he and his labrador-weimaraner cross, Bobby, moved in with his brother and sister-in-law, who let him build a workshop in their yard. He started experimenting and knew that the first thing he had to get right was the cream.
Mr Harrington tracked down a Jersey herd, as their milk has the highest fat content (‘fat is butter,’ he explains. ‘It’s a vehicle for flavour’). The cows are generously grass-fed, which means their milk is rich in beta carotene (the natural pigment that makes butter yellow) and varies in taste with the seasons. Like wine and cheese, proper butter has its own terroir. ‘In spring, it’ll taste really floral and fresh,’ says Mr Harrington.
Three-hundred litres (66 gallons) of cream arrive each Monday. Mr Harrington ferments it with a strain of lactobacillus bacteria, which gives it the signature tang. This takes a week and the result is a kind of thick, sunny-yellow crème fraîche. This is spun to separate the buttermilk from the solids.
‘This is Charlotte,’ Mr Harrington says, introducing me to his churn. Charlotte? ‘She’s French.’
Finally, the butter is sprinkled with Himalayan salt, weighed, hand-shaped and packaged. Mr Harrington works around the clock. ‘I do wish I’d put some windows in here,’ he sighs. ‘I get through a lot of audio books.’
If the butter revolution was going to begin anywhere, he felt, it was going to be in restaurants. ‘When you go out for a meal, the first thing you taste is the butter,’ he says. ‘It’s at the centre of every table.’
Top of his hit list was Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He presented the chef with samples, but it didn’t go to plan.
‘Raymond said it was slightly too salty,’ he remembers.
‘I took a less salty one in and he thought it wasn’t salty enough. The next batch he said was too buttery.’
He got there in the end and Le Manoir now serves a slate pitting Ampersand’s English butter against the French stuff.
‘They tell me that the English butter’s always the first to go,’ Mr Harrington beams.
‘It’s nice to know people appreciate it.’
Ampersand butter is available from butterculture.bigcartel.com
Three more places to find better butter
From a small dairy in Vent-nor, Patrik Johansson and Maria Håkansson carry on the work of the Viking invaders who, the story goes, taught the French to churn
butter. The range includes pale Angel butter and slow-churned Chanting.
‘The richest dairy pastures lie betwixt the Severn and the Wye’ is the motto of Wyndham and Linda Weeks. Their golden, creamy butter is served in Claridge’s, Harrods and The Goring.
This boutique dairy produces vintage cheddar and turns the cream separated from the whey into a salted whey butter. A total toast transformer.
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