Butter, Part 1 – Buttered Beginnings

Brief intro, recipes

My next series will be on butter so herewith a brief introduction to get it all into perspective. The Swiss, the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Belgians and the Brits all make incredibly good butter as do the French and I will start with them in my next article and highlight their famous Echiré, simply because I love their butter and for no other reason.

Butter was first made around 9,000 – 8,000 BC in and around Mesopotamia and it was probably made from sheep and goat’s milk for the simple reason that there were no cows roaming around yet.  Whilst cows had been domesticated in Iraq around that time, they weren’t common and I’m not so sure that they had reached that stage where milking them would be the breeze it is today. See an earlier insert called “Did you know?”

Butter was made, then, as it still is in some remote parts of Africa, by half-filling a goat skin with milk, blowing air into it, sealing it and then hanging the skin with ropes on a tripod to be rocked about until butter was formed.  It stands to reason that they would have discovered this luxury when they transported milk for personal use.

The Mediterranean countries knew of the existence and use of butter, but they didn’t use it that much, probably for two reasons, a) they used olive oil and b) it may have been impractical given their lifestyle and weather. However, there were mixed opinions on butter – the Greek poet Anaxandrides called the Thraciansboutyrophagoi” (butter eaters) and he wasn’t being nice about it, but Pliny the Roman, on the other hand, felt that it was a most elegant food eaten by barbarous nations.  Ironic that it was those very barbarous nations that destroyed his own seemingly sophisticated one.

During the Renaissance, the Scandinavian countries became the most significant butter exporters and thanks, probably, to their cooler climates but also to superior feeding, extraordinarily good vegetation and good old-fashioned animal husbandry it thrived.
They started exporting significantly around the 12th century.  After Rome’s demise butter was commonly used throughout Europe even though not considered a luxury item then. As with all good things, the peasants ate it first and it took some time before the upper classes realised what they were missing.  The Brits, in particular, took to eating butter very enthusiastically and for this reason I include here one of their famous and rather delicious bread and butter puddings.


This 17th century pudding must not be confused with Bread Pudding which is popular in many other countries around the world. At the same time that bread and butter pudding was born, marrow pudding (or whitepot) and which is made with bone marrow instead of butter, was also very popular.


400 g unsalted butter
125 g sultana’s or seedless raisins
50 ml good brandy
10 thick slices white bread, crusts removed
150 ml marmalade (apricot jam, optional)
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
60 g demerara sugar
500 ml thick cream
250 ml milk
2 lemons, zest only
1 teaspoon ground cardamom


Preheat oven to 200 C

Soak the sultanas in the brandy, warming them in microwave for 1 – 2 minutes before you add them to the pudding.
Grease baking dish well with butter. Sandwich the bread, butter and marmalade together and make sure that you have a little butter left to sprinkle over the top later. Quarter or halve the sandwiches and arrange them along the middle of the pudding dish in whichever way you prefer. (You can also cut the bread in half diagonally, spread butter and jam and not sandwich them, but it makes for a pretty messy beginning).
Sprinkle over the sultanas and brandy. Whisk the egg yolks and egg together with the sugar, spices, zest and pour in the cream and milk to this mixture.
Pour this over the triangles of bread and let them stand for about 10 minutes before putting it into the oven. Dot lavishly with butter and sugar and allow to bake for about 45 minutes until the custard has set and puffed up slightly. Allow to rest and serve with whipped cream or custard.


Bearnaise sauce was irst made around 1830 by Collinet in a restaurant in the Saint-Germain-en-Laye called the Pavillon Henri IV.  However, a recipe, similar to this appeared in La Cuisine des villes et des campagnes which was published in 1818.


½ cup white wine vinegar
2 shallots, grated
2 tbs fresh tarragon and chervil, finely chopped
1 tiny sprig of thyme
½ tsp white pepper
4 egg yolks
½ cup boiling water, cooled to room temperature
1 cup warm butter, soft enough to break into little knobs


Mix the vinegar, shallots, pepper and tarragon in a small pot. Bring to boil and simmer to reduce by two thirds.
Remove from stove, allow to cool slightly, and beat egg yolks in one at a time, whisking constantly. Add the water and make sure that it is completely incorporated. Keep pot over very low heat whilst starting to whisk in the butter, a little know at a time, ensuring that the butter is the same temperature as the egg mixture. Strain the sauce through a sieve if you like. Check and correct the seasoning and adjust the salt to taste
I have to admit that I make the béarnaise in a blender nowadays.

In the North of Europe butter was manufactured rather differently.  Packed into barrels (firkins) and buried in peat bogs for years, it developed a unique flavour during the ageing process and strangely, remained edible. The surroundings were cool, airless and the antispecic acidity of the bog preserved it.  The Irish did this regularly and if you go to the Irish National museum you will find  a sample.  It looks hideous but apparently no putrefaction has occurred at all.



The yeast mix
275ml warm water
1 sachet yeast
275g strong white flour

The dough

175g unsalted butter, softened
500g strong white flour
125ml milk
2 level tbsp caster sugar
1½ tsp salt
3 egg yolks
1 egg, beaten for brushing
Beat the yeast ingredients in a bowl, then cover and leave for a couple of hours.

In a large bowl, rub the butter through the flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Bring the milk to a boil, set aside until lukewarm and dissolve the sugar and salt in it.  Beat in the yolks well and whisk into the yeast mix, then add to the buttery flour and mix. Cover, leave for 10 minutes and then lightly knead the dough on a oiled work surface for about a minute. Repeat twice every 10 minutes, cover the dough for 30 minutes. Divide the dough into three. Roll each piece into a sausage and plait together into a snug loaf. Preheat oven to 220 C. Line a tray with non-stick paper, put the loaf on top, cover loosely with cling wrap and allow to double in size. Brush the loaf with egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds (optional). Bake for 30 – 35 minutes.


250 g butter, softened
250 g sugar
2 teaspoons honey
500 g flour
10 g ground cardamom
5 g dried rosemary, ground
7 g baking powder
60 g icing sugar

Cream butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl.  As soon as it’s light add the honey and spices and mix it well. Add the flour and baking powder mixture to the creamed butter mixture, incorporating everything very well. Divide the dough into about 8 portions and roll out into slim logs. Place them about 6 cm apart on an ungreased baking tray and then bake them at about 200 C until they are a pale golden brown colour for about 25 minutes Cut them into 2 cm slices and let them cool down on a rack.  Dust with icing sugar.


250 g soft butter
7,5 ml ordinary sunflower oil
500 ml yellow sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg, beaten well
3 cups cake flour
1 cup corn flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla extract and oil together until light and fluffy at which point the beaten egg is added. Beat in the flour and the bicarbonate of soda and mix well until a stiff dough is formed. Roll this out onto a floured surface and cut out which ever shape you like. Traditionally a diamond shape is used and each biscuit is decorated with candied angelica and cherries. Place on a greased baking tray and bake for 200 C for ten minutes.

Cool on wire racks.



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5 responses to “Butter, Part 1 – Buttered Beginnings

  1. I am very much appreciating this excursus into butter… I look forward to learning more.

  2. Pingback: You pieople are killing me | The Anchoress

  3. Hope you enjoy it and thanks for the link! Much appreciated, wishing you well over your fast.

  4. Joseph

    Two things about butter:

    You can easily make a very rich version of your own in a very short time by vigorously blending or shaking Heavy Whipping Cream.

    When you cook with butter, what is prone to burning are the milk solids, and a good deal of what you are melting is mere water.

    Try making Ghee. Simmer melted butter until the milk solids precipitate and the liquid has lost 1/3 of it’s volume. Separate the milk solids and use them for cold butter applications [the flavor becomes slightly more “cheezey”]. Pour ghee into covered jar and refrigerate. It will solidify.

    This butter oil is much nicer mannered in the pan for all but “au buerre noir”. It also is stronger flavored so you can use much less for cold spreading on bread. It can also be remelted and laced with herbs like rosemary, or made into Garlic Ghee.

  5. Joseph – thanks so much! This has to be one of the most helpful comments I have had to date. We use ghee quite often in this country but I have never thought of using the milk solids before – can’t wait to try.

    I am thrilled to get contributions and am thinking of ways to incorporate ones like these into my new website. I am busy changing this site to a .com – but still in the process.

    Will let everyone know as soon as …….

    Thanks again for your kindness in sharing this with us.

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