Butter is something most of us spread on our toast in the mornings without much thought. Although our bread might be a San Fransisco sourdough or a farmhouse granary, the only decision when it comes to butter is choosing salted or unsalted. But that is slowly changing as artisan butters – handmade traditional recipes – are jostling for space in supermarket fridges. Whereas once Lurpak was as classy as it got, these days there are more types of butter than you can shake a French stick at.
The queen is Echiré. Handmade in a small pocket of western France, it is the world's most exclusive – and expensive – butter, loved by chefs and served in many of the world's most famous restaurants. Not many butters share the same appellation status as champagne.
Eric Lanlard, who is a patissier and the presenter of Channel 4's Baking Mad programme, says: "Echiré is one of the best butters. To get the best results, you need the best possible ingredients."
There is even a shop, Maison du Beurre, in Tokyo, devoted to selling Echiré – and only Echiré. There it costs an eye-watering £10 for 250g. Its cult status ensures that the pure-butter croissants, made in-house, sell out before lunch.
Echiré's appeal lies in its delicate, creamy and distinct flavour, which in part is due to its provenance. Since 1894 it has been made at the same independent, co-operative dairy near the villages of Poitiers and La Rochelle.
The milk comes from 66 farms, all within a 50km circumference. The cows all enjoy the same grass and climate.
With mass-produced butter, milk comes from a much broader geographical area, so any variations in the flavour of milk produced by different cows eating different grasses in different climates, is lost in the mixing pot of production. But with Echiré the area is so defined, its flavour is traceable and distinct. Sylvia Griffin, a product developer at Marks and Spencer, which stocks the butter, says: "The quality of the raw materials is astounding. Echiré is produced with a huge amount of care and attention to detail, but the fact that it is from a small area comes across when you eat it. You can taste the difference."
There are seasonal variations. In summer the grass is fresher, in winter drier and, as Frederic Gerard, who works at Echiré, explains, this affects the taste.
"I prefer spring butter," Gerard says. "The cows eat flowers and that goes into the milk, too, and it's really delicious. In winter, you have whiter butter, which is less rich, because the cows are eating dry grass."
Echiré's production methods haven't changed in a century. The co-operative makes 950 tons each year, just 0.2 per cent of France's annual butter production. As with all its best food, the French keep the lion's share – 85 per cent – for themselves. Milk is skimmed using the original machinery. The cream is then pasteurised and set aside to ripen before being slowly turned into butter in small batches in the original churns made from Burmese teak. It is then washed in water from a spring on the dairy's grounds.
Handling is kept to a minimum because each time the butter is touched, molecules break and quality is lost. Gerard, a charming Frenchman, explains: "Each time you mix it or press it, you change the texture, so producing it by hand lessens the impact.
"We use a wooden tool to transfer the butter from the churns into a huge wheelbarrow to be hand-packed."
He prefers to buy his butter in massive slabs, because the less it is interfered with, the better it tastes. Butter should be kept in the fridge, he says. Storing it at room temperature may make it easier to spread, but just a few degrees' fluctuation will compromise the taste.
It all sounds very scientific, but most of the world's best pastry chefs – in New York, Paris and London – agree and prefer baking with Echiré. It contains more butterfat than normal (84 per cent compared with 82 per cent) and a higher melting point. This makes it more plastic and malleable; this is especially good for delicacies such as croissants or puff pastry, which need rolling out several times. Echiré comes both salted and unsalted. (Incidentally, salt was first added to butter purely as a preservative, but now many people prefer a more seasoned taste.) Either way, it is pale in colour: the very light yellow of primrose petals. Its texture is also firmer than normal butter, but suppler and not as greasy.
Butter is a relative latecomer to the artisan food movement compared with the boom in traditional breads and cheeses, where provenance and original production methods are major selling points.
Now that's changing. There are artisan butter-making courses and most supermarkets stock an increasingly eclectic range – goats' milk, sea salt, and herb butters, for example.
It comes at a price. Echiré costs between £3 and £4, depending on where you buy it – almost three times the price of own-brand. But if you think that's bad, thank heavens you are not Norwegian. In December a 250g pack of normal butter went for £50 on the black market after poor weather and a nationwide low-carb diet trend caused the country to run out.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in my case the starter, with which I first ate Echiré at the Delaunay restaurant in London last year. The butter was served in the form of a slim pat alongside a freshly baked, raisin-studded roll. It was unexpectedly delicious, outshining even the bread. I realised that for me, butter had become just something to spread on toast or to cook with, instead of a food in its own right.
Last week I bought a pot of Echiré (it comes in a rustic little basket, instead of grease-proof paper packs) and having never baked with it, I planned to cook all-butter biscuits. Instead, I scoffed the lot, more quickly than I'd planned. Just me. It was too good to waste on the children and my husband wasn't quick enough. Unadulterated and in all its naked glory, I had it melted on warm crumpets, toasted hot-cross buns and with a little freshly ground black pepper on a jacket potato.
But my favourite way was to eat it like cheese, cut in thick slices and served on fresh, plain bread.
I'm sure my doctor would have something to say about that. It's a slippery – well, buttery – slope.
Echiré is on sale at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose
Off Pat: Butter facts
The word butter derives from the phrase "boutyron" meaning "cow cheese" in Greek.
Butter is made when cream is churned until fat globules form and the cream separates.
The taste of butter differs with each type; there is "sweet" cream butter, lactic butter, or whey butter, all of which can be sold in salted or unsalted forms.
Sweet butter is the most prominent butter type sold in the UK, mainly due to its neutral taste. Most of us prefer our butter salted.
Lactic butter has a sharper, more distinct taste, a result of when milk sugars are converted into lactic acid during a fermentation process. This butter is most popular in Europe.
Whey butter is known to possess a cheesier taste and is the healthiest butter due to its lower fat content.
Butter contains vitamins A, E, K and D.
By Alexander Matthews