I can hear a lot of you out there scoffing at the notion of paying that much money for butter. Can it really be that good? Can it really be that different? Yes my friends, it can. And it’s not just because it’s a few percentage points higher in fat (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s because most European butters fall into the category of so-called cultured butters, whose taste is entirely different than the typical American stuff.
There was a time when all butter was cultured butter, and it wasn’t on purpose. Back before the age of industrialized dairying, not very long ago, cream was purchased in small quantities from independent farmers who did their own milking and skimming. It was collected in metal jugs and transported to the local dairy, frequently by horse and cart. But not every farmer produced enough cream to justify a pickup every day. So it sat around in the barn, during which time it soured. That didn’t make it dangerous, it was just, you know, sour cream. Which meant it tasted acidic. To correct this, dairymen frequently added an alkaline (like a little lye) to the mix to “neutralize” the cream and corrected the taste.
Yet some people came to appreciate the acidity. Like the French. To this day French butter makers artificially introduce bacteria cultures to their butter to give it a hint of that good ol’ preindustrial taste. Some just add a little acid instead, which is considered cheating, and I can see why, since as any bread baker knows, acid isn’t the only by-product of bacterial activity. A wide variety of aromatic compounds are also created, the sum total of which is remarkably full flavor. And that’s important in a preparation where butter is the star, like, you know, a Danish.