Bringing back butter
Now that sourdough has had its day in the sun, Swedish foodies have shifted their focus a few millimetres upward from the bread – to the spread. Small-scale dairies are churning internationally acclaimed butter and every self-respecting restaurant is putting out their own house-made table butter. There is, however, an unspoken rule: the butter should be slightly acidic, have a lot of character and taste like it did in the old days.
The Swedish King was coming to visit so Patrik Johansson and Zandra Bring at Vallmobacken’s dairy started brainstorming. They wanted to offer him something extra – a special butter, a butter he would remember. Although they were told that the king is not so fond of butter, they went to work anyway and developed the ”King’s butter”.
Down into the thick, cultured cream Patrik and Zandra dropped pearls of melted butter, waited until they solidified, then carefully folded them in. They repeated this about thirty times until it turned into a soft cream filled with democratically distributed bits of butter.
”I’m not a big fan of butter,” said the King, as he went for his fifth helping.
The word spread
The King’s Butter is one of the more extreme butters to come out of this little dairy in Alingsås. The preparation is just too time consuming to make it profitable, but they still make it sometimes, for special occasions. Among the other luxury butters are “bog butter” (myrsmöret) where butter is buried in a bog with a low pH and matured underground, and “dewdrop butter” (daggdroppesmöret) in which the cream is cultured with the help of the natural bacteria found in dew.
The most famous butter, however, is the airy, light grainy “virgin” butter that’s sold to top restaurants in Sweden, France, England and Denmark. It was the internationally acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, who bought it first. Then the whole world wanted it.
“We emailed Noma and asked for the chance to come there with our butter. When we got there we were star-struck by René Redzepi – and he fell hard for virgin butter,” says Patrik.
But Patrik and Zandra had to draw the line when they started to get requests for the butter from the U.S. It was partly too expensive and partly environmentally unjustifiable to fly butter halfway across the globe.
Virgin butter is made of heavy cultured cream, but they stop churning it just when the first butter granules form so that all the buttermilk is retained, unlike most butter which first rests and is then washed to remove as much buttermilk as possible.
Buttermilk has a lot of flavour and a fresh acidity, but shortens the shelf life of the butter. That’s how virgin butter gets its pronounced butter flavour and an exciting, slightly grainy texture, but you can’t store it for long. That usually doesn’t matter, though – it’s so good that people immediately eat it all up.
Whose butter is better?
Today Vallmobacken’s dairy is super trendy and one example of a growing, national interest in butter. When Patrik’s grandmother made butter in the old days, there were 6,000 small dairies in Sweden; today there are a hundred. (Compare that to France’s 40,000 dairy farms and 8,000 small dairies). But in recent years Swedish, small-scale dairies have multiplied and now Swedish foodies and hipsters are even whipping up their own butter from cream they have soured themselves.
Many Swedish restaurants are also putting energy into making butter, competing to present the most innovative and exclusive table butter. At Daniel Berlin’s restaurant in Skåne Tranås butter is served from Vilhelmsdal’s dairy farm where the milk comes from Jersey cows, and there was a time when you could eat cinnamon butter on toasted cardamom buns at Mathias Dahlgren’s in Stockholm.
Swedish butter is characterized by an acidic taste and pronounced butter flavour, in contrast with the sweeter and distinctively milder butters of England and America (which a Swede would argue are entirely devoid of character). The acidity in Nordic butter was originally the result of the fact that the cream was allowed to stand for a while before it was churned, which gave the natural lactic acid bacteria a chance to thrive. Today no major, Swedish dairy is churning butter in the traditional way. Instead, it’s churned out of fresh cream and then given an additive in the form of a lactic acid distillate. However, there are small-scale dairies like Vallmobacken that still culture(sour) the cream before churning the butter. It is a process that takes more time, but in return results in a butter with more nuances of flavour. A more real butter, if you will.
It’s the bacteria that make the butter
In order for the cream to sour, you need lactobacilli. They are present everywhere in nature – on the cow’s teats, on human skin, in honey, vegetables and plants. One time, when Patrik and Zandra delivered their butter to Noma, they tested culturing cream using bacteria from the staff’s arms as an experiment – one batch from the men’s arms, one from the women’s.
“Then we churned butter out of the cream. The men’s butter was inedible, while the women’s butter became one of the best butters we’ve made,” says Patrik.
Butter contains between 120 and 150 different notes of flavour, and some are only activated at higher temperatures, which is why butter spread on warm, freshly baked bread is so sweet. If you leave the butter out in the open for a few hours at room temperature before you serve it, you will notice that it has more flavour.
There are some contexts where butter is completely essential, like when frying mushrooms, baking cinnamon buns or making a Hollandaise sauce, but the best way to enjoy a really good and tart Swedish butter is to eat it with a spoon. That’s what Patrik at Vallmobacken does.
There are various theories about the origin of butter, but an accepted explanation is that cream, which was carried around in leather pouches or transported via horse, became shaken accidentally. When one then went to pour it, the cream had turned into butter and buttermilk. Since butter proved to be hardier than cream and milk, people continued to save the season’s milk surplus in the form of butter. The French will gladly point out that they were among the first to master the art of making butter, but it’s quite likely that Vikings from the north sailed to France and taught them how to make butter.
Text by Sara Berg, a freelancing food and culture journalist, based in Malmö and Copenhagen. She loves dishes that look simple, but require a lot of preparation. She prefers to write her articles in environments like coffee bars and restaurants and tries to go for a run at least every other day.