This post is about something that’s taken for granted in New Zealand – butter. I love butter, always have. So I was delighted when the editor of Grandparents asked me to write about it. We think of butter as everyday and normal. But it’s actually a big deal.
Butter is an important part of our national economy. It’s 5 percent of our export market. And it’s taking its place in our local food economy too.
A highlight of my weekend trip to Hamilton Farmers’ Market is Bellefield butter. This superb small-batch artisan cultured butter is made in Cambridge by Steve and Jan Dolan. Their Miso flavoured butter recently collected a gold medal in the Outstanding New Zealand Food Producer awards. (I think it tastes like a very classy Vegemite on toast.)
The Waikato is full of rich dairy farms, producing large volumes of milk and cream, but until Bellefield there hasn’t been a local iconic butter brand. The name comes from a famous soccer field in the Dolans’ home city of Liverpool.
You can also buy Bellefield butter at the Clevedon markets and at selected shops in Auckland and Wellington. Check their Facebook page for details.
Butter’s back in fashion
Butter is a traditional food throughout Europe and central Asia. Butter: A Rich History, by US-based food writer Elaine Khosrova (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2017) describes the epic story of butter and its role in traditional and modern cultures.
Khosrova has sampled many kinds of butter, from all over the world. And they all taste different.
She says the local artisan butter movement is great for butter fans. “Whenever a traditional food is rediscovered by artisans, we stand to gain interesting choices, perchance even more delicious, creative, and/or healthful ones.”
For most of my life, butter has been a guilty treat. From the 1950s health experts believed that butter was unhealthy and caused a range of illnesses. Changing views on nutrition have seen butter come back into fashion. Elaine Khosrova has a chapter in her book on the ongoing butter health debates.
New Zealand butter only gets a brief mention in Khosrova’s book. But I think that’s because until very recently we didn’t produce premium butter and artisan butter in this country. Just blocks of big-brand factory butter. Which are pretty good by world standards, in my opinion.
That changed with the arrival of Lewis Road butter. About ten years ago marketing specialist and food lover Peter Cullinane realized that New Zealand lacked a premium butter brand.
The result of his brainwave is delicious Lewis Road butter. Oamaru-based Whitestone Cheese also produce a premium cultured butter, in small batches. Whereas Lewis Road is a large scale factory product – made in large enough quantities to be stocked in supermarkets throughout the country. It’s also being exported.
Real cultured butter is made by adding live bacteria (cultures) to cream before the butter is churned. Regular (sweet) butter is made from cream without culture added.
The addition of cultures gives the butter a slightly tangy flavour and improves digestibility.
New Zealand has been producing large quantities of butter since the 1800s. The first butter export was in 1882, when the ship Dunedin set sail for Britain from Oamaru. The ship carried a load of mutton and lamb, and 250kg of butter.
As well as exporting, we consume a fair amount of butter locally. However, we only rate sixth on the table of top butter eating nations, after France, Denmark, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
Our biggest butter eating years were the 1960s, when we munched our way through an incredible 20kg of butter per person per year. We’re now down to a more moderate sounding 5.1kg. (Plus margarine and various other kinds of fat.)
New Zealand butter is golden yellow because our cows are mainly grass-fed. In the United States and many other parts of the world, butter is white because the cows are kept in feedlots and/or inside buildings, and fed grain. They don’t get to eat grass.
What to do with butter
I love butter in small quantities. I wouldn’t get anywhere near 5kg per year. A slice of Volare sourdough toast spread with Bellefield’s sea salt butter and some local Sweetree honey – heaven! Good quality butter is wonderful with scrambled free-range eggs. A dab of butter is the x-factor on a tray of roasted asparagus
Cooking with butter
In larger quantities, butter is essential for hollandaise sauce and for pastries and other baked goods. Butter plus sugar plus flour makes a huge range of superb treats. Elaine Khosrova devotes several chapters to great recipes that use butter.
I’ve been told that cultured butter makes better pastry – apparently it gives a more tender texture. But I haven’t tested this yet.