A wee bit o' butter for my bread

Why aren't our dairies making good butters and cream? The answer is simple: The government appears to have no interest in providing choices for Canadian consumers

Gina Mallet
Saturday Post

Saturday, October 25, 2003

A curling, rosy snapshot lies to hand. My sister and I wear wide smiles, a farmhouse in the background. We were anticipating the best meal of the week in those post-war years. On Thursdays, we were given a glass of raw milk warm from the cow, as flavoursome as a tomato juice cocktail. Then, as it was butter-making day, we had a slice of homemade bread spread with sweet yellow butter, homemade strawberry jam, with daffodil-coloured cream so thick it could be laid on with a knife.

Recently I tried to relive that experience in Canada. What a bust! Raw milk is banned, cream is anemic and butter tasteless.

Raw milk is a cultural land mine, one that blows open the gulf between Europe and Canada, between natural and processed foods. While raw milk and its products are protected in Europe, and while 27 U.S. states permit the sale of raw milk, public health dogma in Canada insists raw milk is unsafe. If Health Canada had its way (which it doesn't entirely), you'd never eat another slice of the great raw milk cheeses -- Parmesan, Roquefort, Gruyère, brie, Camembert and Epoisses, not to mention Mapledale's delicious white cheddar and Chaput's goat Briquette. The best way to learn about this controversial subject is to go to www.naturalmilk.org, the Web site for James McLaren, an Ottawa accountant who, fighting on behalf of all gourmands, has prepared a brief arguing for the right to drink raw milk under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

OK, raw milk is out, but where's the cream? In Britain, cream is 48% deep chrome butterfat, and butterfat is why you eat cream. The common cream in Canada is a white and skinny 35% butterfat, barely foamable. You're as well off buying the aerosol cream (same ingredients), and it is handy at orgies for squirting over sex partners. I found only one dairy anywhere making a 40% cream: Western Dairies in Toronto sells its cream to Loblaws, but Loblaws wouldn't tell me which branches stocked it!

To top it off, my hope of eating rich, satiny butter was dashed -- Canada bans imported butter and makes only minimum-fat butter.

To get that old-time feeling, I asked a friend to smuggle in some European butters (most of which are available in New York City). Yes! I cried, to St. Ivel, a fragrant Cornish cream butter -- the Queen's favourite. My fellow tester, Gay, went for the English Jersey Gold's "full throttle taste." The Ocelli from Piedmont, handmade from raw milk, had a delicate taste. And when my sister called from England she said she loves imported Brittany butter with chunks of sea salt crystals in it.

The King of imported butters is the French Beurre d'Échiré, made today as it was more than 100 years ago, tasting of the terroir -- the land browsed by the cows -- and stamped with the esteemed Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) -- like a fine Epoisses cheese.

Even if Canada won't import these wonderful butters, why aren't Canadian dairies making good butters? The answer is simple: The Canadian dairy industry, one of the most protected food industries in the world, isn't interested in consumers. The processors (dominated by three companies, the Italian giant Parmalat and Quebec-based Agropur and Saputo) don't have to be. "Part of the price of being a Canadian is eating inferior products," comments Michael Hart, the Simon Reisman Professor of Trade Policy at Carleton University. "The incentives are wrong. The farmers get paid for milk they produce and it doesn't matter what kind they produce because the dairies must buy it. They can't buy it anywhere else!"

Even the Canadian cow is cut-rate. The Holstein is a milk machine spewing inferior milk. About 40 years ago, Ontario sold the supreme Jersey milk -- but it was too popular. There wasn't enough of it. Rather than encourage more Jersey herds, the Ontario Dairy Council told the farmers to move over to the more productive Holsteins. Not surprisingly, less than 1% of Canadian dairy products are exported.

Canadian butter has a minimum of 80% butterfat compared to the European standard of 82%. These two percentage points make a world of difference. While European butter retains its integrity as it melts, Canadian butter melts into a puddle of water. The French Beurre d'Échiré is 84% butterfat and cultured (the cream is slightly sour), which helps tenderize the puff pastry that must be rolled out again and again for those ethereal croissants.

John Mastroianni of Pusateri's, a high-end Toronto market, tasted Ocelli butter in Italy last year. "I've got to bring this in," he said. "The consumer's taste buds should rule!" But he says the government, in the form of provincial marketing boards such as the Ontario Dairy Council, keeps saying people want less fat. If Mastroianni did find a high-butterfat butter, "the government might come down and say get rid of that product."

Thérèse Beaulieu, the spokesperson for the national regulator, the Canadian Dairy Commission, confirms the government attitude toward fat. "I was in France in the spring and found it quite amazing. But back in Canada, croissants are not part of my daily diet. My daily diet is very much influenced by the cultural reference.

"This is not necessarily the perfect environment to try to introduce a higher-fat product on a large-scale basis.... Besides, in the current context, do you see many consumers responding to market studies that they want to increase the amount of fat in their diet?"

Actually, yes.

According to cheesemaker Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese, the American appetite for butter has been growing for the past 10 years -- aroused in part by the effulgencies of the Food Network, where Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse wallow in butter -- but also to the ever more disturbing revelations of food science.

In 1999, the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed that trans fats (found in Crisco, margarine, Oreos and almost all fast food) are the deadliest fats of all -- more dangerous artery-cloggers than dear old natural butter. In 2000, an inspired Hooper finally started making her own incredible butter (86% butterfat) -- rolls of golden bliss, a cultured butter with a lively tang. She isn't alone: Two mass-produced American butters, the 82% Plugrá and 83% Land O'Lakes, are now on the market.

Surely, anything the U.S. can do, Canada can do better.

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