Americans cherish their holiday baking traditions. Health-conscious consumers, however, may want to take a cue from Europeans before they embark upon their first batch of brownies.
European cheeses, after all, introduced Americans to the not-so-subtle differences between, say, Velveeta and a fine French Brie. Now, European butters have hit these shores, proving to consumers that there is indeed a very marked dissimilarity between "real" butter and the domestic variety we are used to.
It wasn't so long ago that many health-conscious people considered butter a taboo, unhealthy food. Butter was simply bad for you, end of subject. But then many in the natural foods industry started to recognize that butter substitutes might not be so good for you, either. Commercial margarines contain artificial ingredients such as stabilizers and coloring, as well as hydrogenated fats. It became obvious to most in the health food industry that butter was the better choice.
The new wisdom is to enjoy the real thing, but eat it in moderation. For this new approach, the ideal solution is to use European butter—a butter so flavorful that a little goes a long way.
From Cow To Euro Butter
European butters, like European cheeses, are typically made with old-fashioned craftsmanship. Everything from what the cows eat to how the butter is churned differentiates these butters from run-of-the-mill varieties. U.S. dairy manufacturers familiar to natural foods customers, such as Organic Valley, Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. and Horizon Organic, have gotten in on the act, selling what they call "European-style" butters.
Classic European butter is made according to a time-honored tradition. Cows used in production of European butter are allowed to range freely and graze on sweet grasses. The flavor of the butter varies with the type of grasses they've eaten and the time of year. Some regions are prized for their special butters.
For instance, Normandy is famous for its dairy products because of the lush grasses that result from the cool evening air in that part of France, and the cheese and butter produced there is highly sought-after. France doesn't have the market cornered, though; the butters of Denmark, Ireland and Italy are also well regarded.
European-style butters produced in the United States don't necessarily share this same attribute of regional flavor differences, since the cows are not completely free-range but also eat feed.
The cows' milk is processed into European butters in a variety of ways. In the old days milk was allowed to sit out and sour slightly before churning, giving it a flavor akin to yogurt. Many modern butter manufacturers try to achieve a similar effect by introducing a culture into the milk before churning it. Organic Valley combines the two approaches in its Euro-style butter. "We take an enzyme—it's actually a culture we started in Belgium—and we inoculate the cream with it," says Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive. "It's kept at about 80 degrees, and we let it sit out overnight. This is the old-fashioned way, using the live culture to ripen the cream and bring out the natural sweetness of the butter."
A Butter With Culture
Rickard Werner, category manager for dairy and frozen products at Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Market Inc., finds that there's a tangible distinguishing flavor between the various cultures used in European-style butters. "It adds a flavor, depending on the cultures that are used, providing a taste difference like that found between varying yogurts," Werner explains. "Bulgarian-style yogurt has a flavor different from American yogurt—that has to do with the culture that's used."
Other manufacturers, including Horizon, find the culture process less important. "We've focused more on the fact that it's organic and it's a great baking product, and haven't added cultures to it," explaines Gwen Scherer, director of marketing for Horizon.
The churning process also differentiates European-style butters. Whereas most modern butters are made using an extrusion process, European-butter manufacturers employ a slow churning process. They mix the butter in smaller batches using an old-fashioned churn, a method that yields a richer, more luxurious butter.
What makes European butters unique is that most have at least an 82 percent butterfat content, whereas ordinary butter has no more than 80 percent. The more fat there is, the more it displaces the water. Increasing the butterfat by just 2.5 percent leads to a 10 percent reduction in moisture. And, the less liquid there is, the better the butter is for the cook.
Less liquid means fewer milk solids and, therefore, a higher smoking point than ordinary butter, which makes it possible to sauté foods more effectively. But the main advantage is that the reduced water content yields foods with a stronger butter flavor, as well as a less watery texture. Piecrusts are flakier and grains more delicate in many goods baked with Euro butter.
Natural foods retailers may hear concerns that European butter is less healthy, due to its higher fat content. While that's true, the point with European butters—as with any fine gourmet food—is to savor the flavor, not heap it on. In fact, because of its reduced liquid content, you can actually reduce the amount of butter in some recipes.
Developing Your Customers' Butter Palate
European butters are selling very well at Wild Oats, says Werner. "We've seen about 16 percent growth in the last year," he says. "We're certainly happy with it and feel that it's a category that warrants the attention we're giving it."
Werner carries five different brands of European-style butter, including Horizon, Kerry Gold, Lurpak Danish Butter, Organic Valley and Vermont European Style butter. He sells the Kerry and Lurpak butters in the cheese section. "There's a lot more customer service in the cheese department," Werner explains. "You can have someone there to say, 'I notice you're buying a wheel of Brie; have you ever tried European butter?' " Werner says he also likes to carry those two butters in the cheese section because they carry a higher price point (since they're made in very small batches or imported). "We find that customer service and education are the key to bringing customers to these new kinds of products, and building that kind of client base."
One obvious way to bring attention to your store's European butter products is to hold a butter tasting. This could also offer an opportunity for cross-merchandising—you could demonstrate that, like a fine cheese, European butter tastes great with one of the cracker brands you're currently promoting. Or, you could offer the Euro butter melted with a little garlic, minced parsley and salt stirred into it as a spread for bread, or as a dipping sauce for shrimp.
The trick is to raise the profile of European butter, and provide customers with opportunities to experience the difference between it and more familiar, domestic butters. European butters present a new category that, properly marketed, is a boon to the natural foods merchandiser—a premium, gourmet product that brings a new appeal to an old standard.
Lynn Ginsburg and Mary Taylor are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2002). For more information, check out www.whatareyouhungryfor.net.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 10/p. 22, 26