When I moved to Belgium in 2019, I was completely unprepared for the amazing dairy I would find.

Waffles, beer, fries, and chocolate, yes, I already knew about them. But the ice cream and butter was such an unexpected delight. I indulged in good Belgian butter with good bread daily for several weeks, until my clothes stopped fitting properly. I reluctantly realized some self-control was in order. Sadly, now that I’ve moved back to Canada, self-control is a lot easier, as dairy prices have reached outrageous levels.

Butter is one of the simplest foods you can imagine. Sweet butter is made out of nothing more than cream that is beaten beyond the whipped cream stage, until the solids separate; Europeans tend to prefer it this way. You can then add salt for flavour and a longer shelf life, which is our standard in North America. But if you want the really life-changing good stuff, you can add a spoonful of sour cream or yogourt to the cream and leave it at room temperature for a few hours before beating to get cultured butter. From there, the world’s your oyster: melt and remove the floating and sinking parts for ghee, add garlic and parsley, or mix with any fresh herbs you like for a compound butter over steak.

You can also bake with it, of course. If you walk into a French bakery, you will often be confronted with a choice between a croissant au beurre and a croissant ordinaire. My rule is always follow the butter; a croissant ordinaire is made with vegetable shortening and will be beautiful – shortening is great for providing structure – but far less delicious. If you’re going to indulge in a croissant, your goal should be to devour the best-tasting one, right? And you already knew that croissant dough is literally half fat, I’m sure. Likewise, a cake made with butter will be more tasty but also more tender than one made with shortening. An important note for those of you on posting: European butter bakes a bit different than Canadian because it has a bit more fat while ours has a bit more water. So beware when using your recipes abroad, as your beloved baking recipes that use butter may turn out a bit heavier than you expect! I often reduced the butter in the recipe a bit to compensate. And always note if your recipe calls for salted or unsalted butter, as that affects whether you may need to add extra salt, which is an important flavour enhancer when used in small quantities. 

In terms of what you can find at the grocery store, quality and flavour vary wildly. Because there are so few ingredients, the quality really counts. Industrial milk will give you industrial butter. Happier, better-treated cows make better butter. Salted butter stays fresh longer in your fridge because salt is a preservative, so if you stock up during a sale or don’t use butter often, freeze it in a sealed plastic bag to keep it at its best. If you can find Kerrygold from Ireland, that’s a great bet. If you were to pop over to Vermont for a King Arthur Baking School course, pick up some Vermont Creamery cultured butter on your way home. Danish Lurpak is great and in Belgium…really everything of the wide variety I’ve tried has been good at minimum, but many are transcendental. Don’t even get me started on French butter. Buy lots, especially if you can find artisanal or farm-made butter.

On the other hand, you may have noticed domestic options at our grocery stores are rather limited; Lactantia is my current go-to in Ottawa, though I’m looking forward to inspecting some Gatineau area grocery stores to see if there are some good alternatives. Trade FS will know that Canada has a supply managed dairy system, which controls how much dairy is produced and guarantees a minimum price. While the original concept was meant to protect “the farmer,” the truth is that there aren’t so many small dairy farms left and large-scale operations are benefitting from prices that the dairy industry itself sets, at the same time the Canadian government imposes high tariffs on imported dairy. Post-COVID, even mass-produced Canadian butter prices are shocking and there is little competition to help bring prices down. My baking habit is definitely going to take a serious hit, since what was once affordable is now priced like a luxury good. May common sense eventually prevail.

Figuring out which recipe to give you was a real challenge, as butter is a key component of much of my baking. In addition to the recipe, I am handing out (entirely voluntary) assignments this time: please search the interwebz for “Nigella Lawson’s Sticky Toffee Sauce recipe” and for “cultured butter recipe”. Both of those are easy, fun recipes to make and will cause big smiles around the table. The recipe I settled on is one that you may not have had before: Clinton St. Baking Co.’s Maple Butter Sauce. From one of New York City’s busiest breakfast spots, it’s just two ingredients, super simple, and guaranteed to upgrade your pancakes or French toast to a very special experience. 


Clinton St. Baking Co.’s Maple Butter Sauce

In a small saucepan, heat about ½ cup of real maple syrup until it is just hot. Be careful to not let it burn by stirring and keeping an eye on how quickly it is heating up. Add ½ cup of salted butter, one small chunk at a time and whisk it in to melt completely before adding the next. It’ll get thick and a bit frothy. Take it off the heat as soon as all of the butter is in; use as soon as possible. If you want to be fancy, serve in an FS pack up kit gravy boat (send pictures!!!) or small milk jug that you’ve pre-heated with some hot water. Pour out the water before adding the sauce.

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