Butter them up

Food: Put cholesterol concerns behind you and dive into a pat of the Continent's finest
Click to follow
The French like to buy butter sliced from a block; they take it home wrapped in wax paper and slather it, in the fashion of a soft cheese, on top of bread with a gloop of apricot jam. That's the only criterion by which I judge a really good butter: buy the bread to go with it rather than the other way around.

Along with their big tubs of velvety fromage frais and creme fraiche, the cheese stalls in southern France sell big blocks of butter - obscene or awesome, depending upon one's concern about cholesterol. There is something about the way a knife enters butter that has the opposite effect on the central nervous system of chalk on a blackboard. The sheer ease with which the blade glides through!

I have a particular fondness for the deeply creamy, Continental butters that taste halfway to being clotted cream - the ultimate in "richesse". The Continentals make lactic butters by fermenting their cream: a bacterial culture is added to produce lactic acid, which helps to give this type of butter its faintly tart taste.

I had a loathing of heavily salted Anchor butter from a very early age, and my mother indulged her horrible child by keeping a special pat of unsalted butter in the fridge for spreading on fresh white crusts.

But latterly I've realised that it's not salted butter, per se, which I dislike but that particular brand. Having tested Anchor against a small farmhouse-produced equivalent, the Anchor had an acrid, somewhat briny tang, whereas the farmhouse variety tasted of butter and of a decent salt. More importantly, it tasted fresh.

Alistair Grandison, of the food technology department at Reading University, says: "There is no technical reason why one butter should taste better than another. There is nothing in the manufacture of it." Butter is what happens when cream is whipped. By law, it is 80 per cent milk fat, about 19 per cent water and other trace milk solids, and up to 2 per cent salt. "But," he added, "a lot of standard cheap butters are frozen, and volatile flavours will have been lost."

In short, Anchor may be a perfectly nice butter when it comes off the production line in New Zealand, but the milk may have come from several different sources and may also have been frozen.

Enter whey butters, which are now produced by small cheesemakers in this country. Whey is a by-product of cheesemaking, and it makes commercial sense to extract the cream from it and turn it into butter, as the makers of Keen's Cheddar, Appleby's Cheshire and Duckett's Caerphilly already do. These butters pick up something of the flavour of the cheesemaking process; they are stronger than normal butter and distinctly savoury. I like them for their sheer freshness and depth of taste.

Since there has been a revolution in small farmhouse production cheeses, it could be that a butter revolution is just around the corner. There are comparisons to be drawn. Butter, like cheese, depends upon the quality of the milk and the cow's pasturage.

Whey butters are becoming more widely available. They are rarely labelled as such but, if you come across a small, farm-produced, salted butter in the deli fridge, it's worth asking if it is whey.

Breton Butter Cake, makes 1 x 8" / 20.5 cm cake

There are two Breton butter cakes: "kouign amann" is a bread dough rolled with about half its weight in butter and sugar like a puff pastry, and baked with a glaze - while delicious, this is best left up to the baker's of Breton, although there is a recipe in Jenny Baker's Cuisine Grandmere (Faber and Faber pounds 8.99).

This recipe is loosely based on the other type of Breton butter cake, a rich pound cake. The flavour of the butter in the cake should come through, and it should be lightly salted, or even full-blown salted.

It is quite elegant and plain. In particular, it is nice eaten in thin slices with an autumnal fruit compote, but, as a lover of plain cakes, I like it as it is.

To obtain the vanilla seeds, slit a pod and open it out, and run a knife along the length to extract the seeds.

8oz/225g lightly salted butter, softened

7oz/200g caster sugar

4 medium eggs, separated

2 fl oz/60ml sweet white wine

seeds of 1 vanilla pod

7 oz/200g plain flour, sieved

1 level tsp baking powder, sieved

icing sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 180 C (fan oven), 190 C (electric oven), 375 F / Gas 5. Butter and flour an 8"/20.5 cm springform cake tin with a removable collar. Cut up the butter and whisk it in a bowl until it is the consistency of mayonnaise - you can do this in a food processor.

Whisk 3/4 of the sugar, the egg yolks, wine and vanilla seeds together in a bowl for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has more than doubled in volume and is white (again, you can do this in a food processor or use an electric whisk).

In two goes, lightly fold in the flour and baking powder. Next, whisk in the butter as deftly as possible, and remove to a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they're stiff, sprinkle over the remaining sugar, and continue whisking until you have a glossy meringue.

Fold this a third at a time into the cake batter. Spoon it into the prepared tin, give it a few sharp taps on the work surface to remove any air bubbles and bake for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the cake to remove the collar. Dust with icing sugar once cool