All photos/art by Jonathan Levitt
In New England, butter is a special year-round gift whose taste and texture vary magically with the cycle of the seasons. Around the beginning of April, as the early spring greenery is sprouting, dairy cows are moved from their bedding and troughs in the spiderwebbed dustiness of the barn to the soft light and delicate chomp of the newly thawed pasture.
The switch from fodder to grass gives their milk herbal flavors and a warm blush.
Butter made from summer cream is soft and sunny, just right for sweet corn and lobster claws. Then as fall turns to winter and the frosts linger, the animals are brought back inside the barn to spend their time chewing on hay and grain. This cold-weather diet makes for richer milk and firmer butter–perfect for the tarts and pies that cozy the kitchen and make the winter pass a little bit more easily.
To create this essential kitchen delicacy, fresh-from-the-cow whole milk is first allowed to rest undisturbed while the cream, an emulsion of fat in water, rises to the surface. The cream is skimmed off and pasteurized, then shaken, beaten, or churned to separate water from fat. The result is butter and buttermilk. The mass of butter is finally rinsed with plain water, then worked and kneaded.
Most finished butter is at least 80 percent fat, and some, particularly European-style butters, may be as much as 87 percent fat. Rich and dry, they caramelize to a golden-brown and lend a sweet nuttiness to fish, shellfish, and cold-weather vegetables. They’re also pliable, which makes for beautiful pastry.
On the sweet side of the kitchen, it’s true that lard and shortening are easier to work with. Cut the flour with these fats and crusts will come out of the oven reliably flaky and golden brown–but without much flavor.
Butter requires a wiser hand. It’s harder to know, but the taste is so worth the trouble. Blueberry pie, fruit and red-wine tarts, carrots with brown butter and thyme–even on the coldest day, winter butter lets you taste a little of summer’s bounty.
Where to Find Great Butter
New England is home to a number of creameries that produce butter year-round. Some, such as Maine’s Smiling Hill Farm and Vermont’s Animal Farm, produce butter in small batches for the local market. Others, including Kate’s Homemade Butter in Maine and Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, are more widely available.
Kate’s Homemade Butter
Old Orchard Beach, ME
Smiling Hill Farm
Westbrook/North Scarborough, ME
Vermont Butter & Cheese Company