In search of higher-fat butter

The Globe and Mail

When she moved to Canada three years ago, Nadège Nourian, a fourth-generation pâtissier from Lyon, France, had every confidence she could reproduce the supremely flaky, buttery croissants and pain au chocolat she’d mastered over a lifetime of training back at home.

But Ms. Nourian, who opened a patisserie on Toronto’s west side soon after arriving here, struggled with her first batches. While the flour and yeast were a little different from what she was used to, Canadian butter, she soon realized, was not even close.

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Great croissants are made by rolling broad, thin sheets of butter into layer upon layer of butter-enriched dough. Here, the butter kept cracking as she rolled it. Even worse, the paper-thin layers, called feuilletage, didn’t separate and puff up in baking they way they should.

It took the baker, who now runs two Toronto patisseries called Nadège, months of trial and error to turn out pretty good, but not perfect, croissants.

“Right now the quality we make is really high, it is really good here for Toronto, and it is really good as well for France,” she says. “But you know when you know you can do better?”

Canada is a butter backwater, with less variety and quality and far higher prices than nearly any other food-loving nation. In Europe and the United States, it’s available in myriad permutations, from gently nutty regional butters, to fragrant, seasonal butters made with the summer milk of a single herd, to extra high-fat “dry” compositions used in baking.

In Canada, butter is just butter. Give or take a few very minor variations, it’s a monopoly-produced dairy commodity, the same from coast to coast.

And as Ms. Nouiran and scores of other top pâtissiers have realized, Canadian butter is uniformly made with a government-mandated 80-per-cent fat content, while most butter in Europe – the stuff that makes for great pastries – starts at 82 or 83 per cent. What’s worse, Canada’s government levies a 289.5-per-cent tariff on all but a tiny quantity of foreign butter. Until last week, when a salesman named Greg Nogler walked into her patisserie, Ms. Nourian was stuck.

Mr. Nogler is the head of marketing for Stirling Creamery Ltd., a mid-sized dairy in central Ontario. What he brought to Ms. Nourian was a five-kilogram sample of his latest product: an 84-per-cent-fat, barrel-churned butter. As of January, an unsalted version of the butter is available to bakers and food processors nationally. A salted version is also available in a handful of independent grocers in Ontario.

“I am so excited,” Ms. Nourian said the day after receiving the sample. She planned to use it in a test batch of croissants, which would be ready by the end of the week.

Mr. Nogler, who worked in marketing at Kraft Canada, Inc. before joining Stirling, remembers being astonished the first time he took a serious stroll through the butter aisle.

“Look at margarine: You can get omega 3 margarine, you can get sunflower margarine and olive oil margarine – this, that and the other thing – and it doesn’t make any of it much better. It’s great marketing, that’s all,” Mr. Nogler recounted. “Meantime the butter guys are sitting on their hands.”

With just 20 employees and $15-million in annual revenues, Stirling is a tiny creamery. So he started looking for points of difference between his company and all the other manufacturers. Where nearly every other butter processor in Canada uses high-tech machines to turn out a continuous stream of butter, Stirling still churns theirs in stainless steel barrels, batch by batch. Mr. Nogler commissioned new labels that put the words “barrel-churned” right on the front.

Many other options aren’t allowed, however. You can’t produce a single-herd butter in any large quantity, for instance, because under Canada’s supply-managed dairy monopoly system you have to use milk from the provincial pool. You can’t do much about packaging (butter must be sold in a printed foil wrapper), or make tangy, naturally cultured butter from raw cream that’s been allowed to gently ferment (no raw milk, please, we’re Canadian).

The law also stipulates that Canadian butter must have a minimum 80-per-cent fat content. As Mr. Nogler noted, however, it does not invoke an upper limit.

At the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto about a year ago, Mr. Nogler noticed that a few of the high-end cheese shops were selling 250-gram balls of imported European butter, some of it advertising 84 per cent fat. The stores were selling it for as much as eight times the price of Canadian butter, or the equivalent of $35 a pound.

Mr. Nogler asked Chet Blair, Stirling’s master butter maker, whether he could make a high-fat butter. As it happened, it isn’t any harder. It’s just that nobody had bothered to try.

Three or 4 extra per cent of fat content may sound like a trifling difference, but it’s a massive one in the worlds of baking and chocolate making. Fat content affects butter’s flavour (more fat, more flavour), delivers creamier texture, and raises butter’s melting point. But most critically, fat content is a zero-sum proposition: The more fat a butter contains, the less room there is for water. Higher fat butter can contain between 10- and 20-per-cent less water than the usual stuff.

In chocolate making, that lower water content translates to confections that can stay fresh longer without the use of preservatives. In pastry, water acts like glue between dough layers, sticking them together when, ideally, they should separate (it’s the difference between flaky and bready). It’s not impossible to make an excellent croissant with Canadian butter – David Wilson, the head baker at Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, uses Lactantia brand butter. But Mr. Wilson is a rarity.

Thomas Haas, a master pâtissier based in Vancouver, has found a simple, but not particularly satisfying solution. Like many European-trained bakers here, he uses 84-per-cent butter from New Zealand that manages somehow to squeeze through Canada’s butter tariff blockade. “I feel guilty buying butter that’s been shipped halfway around the world just because it has more fat,” said Mr. Haas, who is considered one of the best pâtissiers on the continent. “But it’s important.”

Jennifer McLagan, a chef and cookbook author (one of her books, called Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, rhapsodizes about the importance of good butter), goes to even greater lengths. She often allows Canadian butter to soften before using it. She then wraps the butter in cheesecloth and squeezes all the water out.

As of this past weekend, I’m also convinced of at least a few of high-fat butter’s benefits, even if I am more than a little peeved that the company Stirling offers only salted at retail right now. (Salted butter, though it’s not as good for most baking, accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the market, Mr. Nogler said. The company couldn’t afford to take a bet on two retail versions at once.) While I didn’t bother using the butter for baking, it was exceedingly creamy and voluptuous tasting, if a tad too salty to my taste, when spread thick on fresh bread.

I’m hoping it’s just the first of many more interesting butters to launch in Canada. With a little bit of luck – and Mr. Nogler’s prodding – the butter makers might just get up off of their hands.

On Friday last week, Ms. Nourian’s first trial batch was ready, and throughout the morning she presented a few of her best customers with a blind taste test: half of a 84-per-cent-butter croissant and half of an 80-per-cent one, together on a single plate. They looked more or less identical: layer upon layer of golden feuilletage, with an airy web of buttery dough inside.

Ms. Nourian made a point of noting that this was her first effort. She also struggled a bit with the higher-fat butter, she admitted. You need to roll it at a different temperature to account for the different consistency, and she didn’t nail the temperature this time.

But the taste was the ultimate goal here. As I bit into the piece on the left and wiped the shards of buttery feuilletage from my chin, I thought, yes, this is very good pastry. It was buttery and clean-tasting, with a tiny hint of sweetness inside. I chewed, trying as hard as possible to look thoughtful about it. I swallowed, then took a sip of tea.

Next, I bit into the croissant on the right of the plate. It tasted almost identical. But then, I took a second bite, and the butter flavour kept building. There was a creamy, luxurious quality to the texture – a roundness, for lack of a better way of putting it – and a deeply buttery resonance about the taste.

“This is the 84-per-center,” I told her. She knew she still had work to do, but at the moment it didn’t matter. She smiled.

Making sense of butter-nomics

Though Canada's butter prices are among the world's highest, that reality affects home cooks far more than professional bakers and food manufacturers. Under the Special Milk Class Permit Program, run by the Canadian Dairy Commission, approved bakers and processors receive hefty rebates on their butter purchases. One baker we spoke with said he gets a rebate of between $60 and $90 for every $200 block of butter he buys.

The reason for the program, a Commission spokeswoman said, is that food manufacturers and bakers who export their products are allowed to import foreign butter without tariffs. Without the rebates, Canadian butter couldn't compete with the foreign stuff.

The rebate program is open to most bakers and processors who use butter, regardless of whether they export.

The Dairy Commission doesn't bother itself making the price of butter competitive for everyday consumers, however – we're generally barred from accessing the foreign stuff. Outside of its program for manufacturing exporters, the country allows in just 3,274 metric tonnes of foreign butter annually – less than 4 per cent of Canada's consumption. Anything beyond that is assessed a duty of 289.5 per cent.