Essential for sauces, sublime with fish and unbeatable on hot toast – no wonder we're regaining our taste for butter.

Once castigated as the artery-clogging spread of death, butter has returned to the national shopping list. Last month, it emerged that butter now accounts for 47.9 per cent of spending on "yellow fats" compared to 31 per cent in 1990. Sales rose by 9 per cent last year and a further 6 per cent is predicted for this year. The reason for the public rebellion against more austere sections of the health lobby is perhaps no mystery. Butter tastes incomparably superior to margarine and spreads. Only those rigidly set in their habits or with bizarrely undiscriminating palates would deliberately choose the artificially concocted taste of manufactured spreads over the natural, rich flavour of butter.

Butter is one of the great culinary treats. No wonder our top chefs, people whose business is pleasure, use it with abandon. Butter is mandatory when making polenta and risotto. Spiked with capers, melted butter is a simple, perfect sauce for grilled fish, or, flecked with fragments of fresh-torn sage, for pasta parcels such as pumpkin-stuffed tortellini.

Only butter will do as a foundation for hollandaise and other sauces. Croissants made with butter are streets ahead of more economic versions. For seed cake, tarte tatin or shortbread, butter is of the essence. Brown shrimps or crab potted under mace-infused butter are two of the greatest pleasures in English cuisine. And what else goes with a fresh-boiled ear of sweetcorn? In her classic work Food in England, Dorothy Hartley advised salting and peppering buttered toast before adding a poached egg. There is little to beat hot buttered toast by itself, though some prefer the butter-filled pores of crumpets.

But is the spreading passion for butter imperilling our health? Obviously, an excess of any fat is not going to be good for you, but it appears that swapping from artificial spreads to butter is not particularly deleterious. Ironically, when we were eating margarine-type products by the ton in the Eighties, it was worse for us than butter. At that time, these heavily promoted items were made by hydrogenating vegetable fats, described by food writer Rose Prince as "a thickening method that produces harmful transfats that increase the risk of heart disease and cancers and, according to the Food Standards Agency, has no known nutritional benefit". Today's spreads, which tend to be thickened with enzymes, have fewer transfats, but this seems a feeble reason for buying them rather than butter.

Though margarine was a French invention, our neighbours across the Channel have mainly stuck to butter. The French eat four times as much as Americans, but have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. A possible explanation for the "French paradox" is that our neighbours do not consume large quantities of junk food with its hidden cargo of hydrogenated fats.

After asserting the necessity of butter (a buttered scone would have done it a lot quicker), I should point out that there is a world of difference between types of butter. (I don't just mean salted and unsalted. This is a matter of taste, particularly when you're having a nibble of buttered roll, surely the most popular restaurant starter in this country. Most chefs go for unsalted, but Richard Corrigan declares: "I like salty butter for eating, as opposed to cooking. The whole idea of unsalted butter with bread does nothing for me.") What I mean is the gulf between the uniform butter made in factories and the churned butter made in small dairies. Rich in both taste and character, this varies according to season and the type of pasture on which the cows have fed. Though it should be sold by every cheese shop in this country (as happens on the Continent), artisan butter remains a rarity, available only at farmers' markets. If you see it, snap it up.

Robyn Heap, who makes 50-150 kilos per week at the Calderdale Creamery near Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, is one of the small producers who have benefited from Britain's return to butter. "Demand has gone silly," she says. "People just love it." Costing £1 for 200g, Heap's butter (75 per cent of her output is salted, 25 per cent unsalted) is sold at Hebden Bridge market every Thursday and the Fodder shop at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate (also by mail order on Calderdalecheese. The cream comes from the UK's smallest commercial dairy herd of 12 cows, a mix of Holsteins, Friesians and Jerseys, augmented by cream from a neighbouring farm. In summer, when the pastures blaze with wild flowers, the butter is a rich, creamy yellow. In winter, it is somewhat lighter.

With her husband David, Heap began making butter and cheese five years ago. "It was because we were only getting 4p per pint for milk." The couple bought pasteurisation equipment (a legal requirement) and an Austrian butter maker for £500. This proved to be a false step. "A big dough mixer from a redundant dairy for £50 turned out to be far better." The resulting butter won a prize at the Bakewell Show and was praised by Princess Anne ("very creamy") when she visited the farm recently.

"Butter making is dead easy," said Heap. "You can do it at home with a cake mixer. Just pour the cream in and start mixing until it sticks together. Pour off the buttermilk – I use it in scones – and wash the butter under the cold tap until the water starts running clear. Then put it back in the mixer and add the salt. All you do then is pat it into shape. But you've got to get hold of the right cream. It's no good using supermarket cream because that's been homogenised. You've got to get it from a local farm." Anyone tempted to imitate the Heaps in a Good Life-style butter operation should know that their work usually demands a 16-hour day.

If the conversion of cream into butter, which concentrates a suspension of dairy fat from 48 per cent to over 80 per cent, is one of the most straightforward of all culinary processes, it is also surprisingly mysterious. Culinary scientist Harold McGee says: "Exactly how churning works is still unknown." Essentially, it involves breaking down the protective membrane of foam in whipped cream by "persistent agitation". Stephen Harris, chef at the Michelin-starred Sportsman pub in Seasalter, Kent, is more graphic. "I beat the crap out of it."

Harris explains why he started making his own butter. "I could not get artisan butters in this area to compare with Bordier butter from St Malo in Brittany. I got some fantastic unpasteurised cream from a local dairy and it made the best butter I've ever tasted. Unfortunately, it fell foul of the environmental health officers so I switched to crème fraiche from the same dairy. The taste is amazing. Generally we add salt to the finished butter, but we also make a seaweed butter with dried sea lettuce. Our butter is expensive, but it has fantastic character." Yes, indeed. The homemade bread and butter at the Sportsman is in a different league to the usual humdrum offering. Cooked dishes also benefit from Stephen's exquisite butter. A starter of slip sole cooked with lemon and seaweed butter was the best fish dish I've had in years.

Scrambled eggs

Scrambled eggs made with good butter are one of the finest of all snacks. The dish makes a regular appearance in James Bond novels but it is inadvisable to follow Ian Fleming's recipe. Requiring 375g butter and 12 eggs, it is as potentially lethal as Bond's Walther PPK handgun. This recipe achieves luxurious results with more moderate quantities.

Melt a walnut-sized knob of unsalted butter in a small to medium cast-iron saucepan over the lowest heat on your hob. Crack open the eggs (you need at least four) and pour into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Lightly mix for four to five seconds with salt and pepper. When the butter has melted, add the eggs. Stir gently but more or less continuously with a wooden spoon, so curds break up as soon as they form on the bottom of the pan. After about five minutes, when the eggs have achieved the consistency of thick cream and show signs of setting, add another knob of butter and stir again. Continue stirring until the eggs have achieved a very light, creamy set. Serve immediately on buttered toast.

Lemon sole with caper butter

Allow three lemon sole fillets per person. Place the fillets on a foil-covered grill tray. Dot generously with unsalted butter, add a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle with a teaspoon of capers (drained of vinegar) per person. Cook fillets on each side under a medium-hot grill until they are just set and opaque. Remove the fillets with spatula and place on plates. Carefully lift the foil from the grill and pour capers and buttery cooking juices on to the fillets.