After living in France, Amanda and I were converted to the French method of butter management. French butter comes in 250 g (roughly 1/2 pound) blocks and is almost never salted (except in the Normandy area). European butter contains less water than American butter, and its higher fat content makes it especially creamy. The French take advantage of their butter’s creamy consistency and spread it by simply scraping a knife at a 90° angle to shave off curls of the firm, cold butter and then firmly spreading it on bread, croissants, or brioche (but only in the morning).
When the butter has softened slightly it can also be sliced into thin slabs by holding knife horizontally. When we returned to the US, we sought out and bought European style butters made by Organic Valley or Pulgra. Once you have experienced the European style creamy butter it is hard to spread anything else on your bread. These butters came in similarly sized blocks and worked well for the French butter technique.
Americans approach butter a bit differently. Our small 113 g (1/4 pound) sticks are not so easy to scrape, so they are approached from the ends where a butter knife can be used to slice off relatively thin chunks. But these chunks don’t spread very well due to their relative thickness, lower fat content, and size. A common solution to this problem is to imprison a single stick of butter in a butter dish which is left out at room temperature. The butter becomes soft and can easily be slathered on the recipient of choice.
This is not a bad technique but in my mind has several drawbacks. Firstly, the soft butter is so easy to spread that one often ends up using more than one intends; which is not necessarily a bad thing! Secondly, I prefer the taste and consistency of cold butter over room temperature butter.
If you don’t believe me then try this simple experiment: take two slices of good fresh bread and toast one of them. Thinly spread cold butter on both of them and then slather with a nice honey. The toast will melt the butter and the honey will sit on top. The untoasted bread will keep the butter cold with honey on top. Now eat them both and see which one you prefer. For me the clear winner is the untoasted bread with the cold butter and honey. Perhaps the sensation of eating cold butter triggers our bodies’ ancient systems to let it know that we are getting closer to God—I mean—eating important calories and fat that will help us through a cold winter or a fight with a kangaroo.
Swedes have a completely different approach to the age old butter spreading dilemma. The Swedes should probably be trusted on this matter for they are large consumers of butter, making the French seem like health nuts at times. While the French only butter their bread in the morning, the Swedes butter any bread they come across, no matter the time of day or intended purpose. Almost all Swedish sandwiches have butter on them, and sometimes the layer of butter can be mistaken for a thick slice of cheese.
The Swedish butter is also the higher fat European style (though in a super sized 500 g format), but the Swedes also demand something that spreads more easily. The Swedish solution is to mix their butter with a small amount of oil (often canola) to decrease its viscosity and expedite the spreading process. These butter/oil mixes are sold in tubs and labeled as Bregott. Virtually every Swede I have met uses Bregott.
The softness of Bregott allowed for a new type of spreading implement to be born: the wooden butter knife. These knives look like the result of a union between a butter knife and miniature canoe paddle. One can imagine that their shape has evolved alongside the Bregott and its container. The wide blade, ideal for spreading, and the pointed tip to retrieve Bregott from the corners of its plastic home, makes the wooden butter a knife a fixture in every Swedish home.
Amanda recently made the astute observation that people approach new or foreign butters with their homegrown techniques. More than once our American friends compromised our European style block of butter by slicing it from the ends, a forgivable offense. Recently I had the opportunity to spend a few days in a cabin with my coworkers from Saltoluokta. They became agitated when they realized no Bregott had been packed. Instead they faced a 1 kg block of long, creamy butter. Amanda’s observation rang true, the Swedes attacked the butter with their techniques and tools (the wooden butter knives) adapted to the soft, spreadable, Bregott.
It was a gruesome sight, the dull knives had been plunged into the heart of the butter block where they tried, ineffectively, to scoop out the butter. Of course this was no adulterated Bregott, smooth and creamy with oil, it was regal and firm pure butter. The wounds were spread out, each new prospective butterer seeking a new, hopefully, soft spot. At the end of the buttering session, the proud block looked as it if had been gnawed on by a finicky beaver, who had left random ragged holes, divets, and gouges, as well as several wooden knives protruding from the subdued butter like battle weapons.
On a recent trip to Switzerland we observed restaurants and hotels serving butter in single serving foil-topped plastic packs sitting in a bowl of ice. In Switzerland one almost never finds ice in drinks, and yet cold butter is important enough to warrant ice.
Will the world ever decide on one type of butter, presented in one way, like some sort of Esperanza universal butter language? I certainly hope not, as eating butter in new ways is exciting, amusing, and always delicious. It is said that “variety is the spice of life,” but I might also add “butter makes the world go round.”
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