The best bit of butter: What makes Echiré a stand-out spread?

Top chefs love to cook with it, the French keep 85 per cent of it to eat themselves and it costs a whopping £4 a tub. So just what makes Echiré a stand-out spread?

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

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'