Not only does it play a starring role on the nation’s toast, but it helped shape the history of Europe. Does marge loom large in your cooking, or is butter just better?
Butter is the first and best of the fats, a smear of puddled sun. It’s a Janus on the tongue, calm and unintrusive but rich and cloakingly full. A naked piece of toast is a dessicated slab: licked with the gold stuff it becomes complete and whole. Butter brings something irreplaceable to the shattering folds of a croissant, the fluffy crumb of a sponge. It makes sauces sing. And to northern Europeans, it’s a taste of ancient plenty, of bursting granaries and swaddled bales, of sward, dung and clover.
Like cheese, butter would have arisen accidentally, very soon after the domestication of ruminants 10,000 years ago. Shaking cream damages the fat globules suspended within it, splitting them from the buttermilk and bringing them together. One particularly satisfying way to start children cooking is to show them how to make butter by getting them to fill a jam jar ? with cream before shaking, draining, washing, toasting and spreading. Some Mongolians still churn cream in a leather flask suspended above the ground, or tie cream-filled gourds to horses’ saddles. The people of the Atlas mountains often use a similar method, and fermented (read: rancid) sheep’s butter is highly esteemed there for flavouring couscous.
Butter took hold in many parts of Europe relatively recently. The Romans didn’t use much of it, largely preferring olive oil, but the Greeks may have used goat’s butter, which is delicious, as an ointment and perhaps as medicine. For much of their history, those descendants of Rome, the French and Italians, were similarly unfamiliar with butter. The Scandinavians likely introduced it as food to southern Europe: by the 12th century, the Norwegians were trading butter for German wine, and outside the Nordic countries many parts of Europe with a history of butter-eating â€“ northern France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Ireland â€“ were once ruled by Vikings.
So it wasn’t until the 14th century that the Roman church began to constrain this “indulgence”, banning it on its all-too-regular fast days. In 1495 the church began selling dispensations at immense cost to butter-eating countries like Germany, Hungary, Bohemia and later France, assuring them that God loves butter as long as you pay for it. The “Butter Tower” at Rouen cathedral was financed entirely by such cynical invoicing.
This appalling practice helped establish a split between northern and southern Europe whose effects are still felt today. “In Rome,” Luther wrote in the early 1500s, “they make a mockery fasting, while forcing us to eat an oil they themselves would not use to grease their slippers”. Those countries that broke from the Catholic church in the 16th century were, almost exactly, the ones that ate more butter than oil. An exception is northern France but, particularly in the south west of the country a ready supply of goose fat no doubt helped palliate local rage at the edicts and avarice of the church.
The happy decline of such militant Christianity in recent centuries should have been good for butter, but a new spectre of fanaticism has regrettably arisen to threaten it again. Margarine was formulated in 1869 by one Hippolyte MÃ¨ge-MouriÃ¨s, who was responding to Napoleon III’s call for a butter substitute to feed the soldiers fighting the Franco-Prussian War. MouriÃ¨s blended tallow, or beef fat, with milk, working the mixture like butter. His product was unsuccessful, though, and in 1871 he sold the patent to Jurgens, which later became Unilever. In the early 1900s, French and German chemists developed hydrogenation, which allowed liquid vegetable fats like sunflower, cottonseed and palm oil to be used for margarine, as they are today.
Rarely has a battle in the food industry been so vicious and wearing as that between the butter and margarine industries. In 1877, the US passed the first laws taxing margarine, and later it banned the addition of colourings to the product to make it look like butter. By the start of the 20th century, total American consumption of margarine had fallen to 24,000 tonnes from a high of 60,000. The first world war, though, increased margarine sales in the UK, and after a brief period of pro-dairy legislation in the US during the Great Depression, the second world war saw a further boost to margarine on both sides of the Atlantic. Canada, where the dairy industry is integral to the economy, banned margarine altogether until 1948, and only repealed its last law against artificial colouring in 2008. In the United States, margarine seems to have won, and Americans now eat twice as much of it as they do butter. In Europe, the situation is more hopeful, but people persist in taking up cudgels against the butter industry.
We now know that hydrogenated fats may be more dangerous than the saturated fats lambasted by the peddlers of marge. But a longheld belief that the reverse was true now means that sales of an entirely synthetic product, a hollow hologram of the real thing, outstrip those of pure churned cream, at least in America. Some margarines are now manufactured without trans fats, but these products are still likely to contain lecithin, colourings, artificial flavourings, gas and gunge. Butter is sweetly, simply mammalian. The French eat four times as much of it as the Americans, but they’re 35% less likely to die from heart disease.
This is a rainy island in the north Atlantic. It’s not a natural habitat for olive trees, and our countrymen don’t look like the people in the Bertolli ads. (John Lydon’s excellent adverts for Country Life butter are much closer to the mark.) We got here with butter, barley, beef, beer and bread. Seamus Heaney’s superb Churning Day captures the almost mythological place butter holds in the consciousness of these islands, the “coagulated sunlight … heaped up gilded gravel in the bowl”. So sod margarine. All hail the pail.