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WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MIKE SIEGEL

better butter
Sometimes, the occasion demands flavors of distinction
 
 Photo
Sugary, buttery rounds of Whole Wheat Shortbread are made more luscious with higher-fat butter from Europe. Some American companies are making high-end butter now as well, appealing to our wish for riches at holiday time.
FOR SOME TIME, the "In" basket on my desk was home to a butter wrapper. More than evidence of poor housekeeping, the wrapper was a memento of a visit from Susan Herrmann Loomis, who was here last year to teach a cooking class and promote her cooking school (www.onruetatin.com). Emblazoned with the cartoon image of a happy cow and the address of a dairy in Normandy, the wrapper came with Susan from her home in Louviers, a small town in that region of France loved for its picturesque villages, its glowing skies and its incomparably flavorful butter.

I held onto the wrapper for a long time because I wanted to remember the aroma of that good butter.

What made that butter so good? Partly, it was knowing it came from Normandy. My wife and I once spent a few days driving slowly across the Norman landscape, dining in small-town restaurants, visiting farms and picnicking on apples and cheese. The sight of that wrapper was enough to evoke images of being there. But the butter itself had an innate goodness quite independent from any of my own predilections.
 
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For one thing, European butter has a slightly higher fat content than most American butter. But there is more to it. Butter from Normandy has a distinctive flavor that derives from the unique nature of the cream from which it is made, and from the bacteria indigenous to the dairies there. Just as milk inoculated with a certain lactobacillus yields yogurt, so cream visited by certain bacteria takes on a form somewhat different than the stuff in its virgin state. Marked with the fingerprint of the wild bacteria of Normandy, cream is nuttier and more flavorful than the sterilized stuff from which most mass-produced butter is made.

Aware of this, certain Americans have been producing "European-style" butters lately. A company called Plugra (the name in French means simply "more fat") led the way. Originally catering exclusively to the bakery and restaurant industry, Plugra started selling its higher-fat-content butter to homemakers in 1989. Since then, the butter cult has grown. Online shoppers can find butters ranging from overpriced Plugra at $6 per pound (it's less than 3 bucks a pound at Trader Joe's) to some really wonderful hand-crafted, cultured butters from Vermont and hard-to-find butter from France.

Even in supermarkets — especially the better ones — a selection of butter ranges from the big names and their corresponding big shelf space to a handful of organic butters, imported butters and European-style American butters. At a dinner party not long ago, I watched fascinated and somewhat humbled as everyone at the table took more notice of the butter than they did of the warm homemade bread on which it was spread. The butter was dark yellow and Irish, with a distinctive butteriness that seemed to radiate from the plate it was on.

"What kind of butter is this?" one guest wanted to know.

"I'd like to just go over there and eat it alone in the corner," said another.

As butter mania settles over the land at the advent of the holiday season and consumers gear up and stock up for their holiday baking, no doubt some will wonder if they should spend twice as much for one of these designer brands. In my experience, regular store-brand butter is fine for most baking — pie crusts, cakes, even butter-cream frosting for that fancy bûche de Noël I plan to make — but a few dishes will demand the really good stuff. If it's plain buttered bread I'm serving, you can bet I'll get more of that fancy Irish stuff. And if the recipe is all about the butter, I'll buy one of the better brands.

Certain dishes are meant to taste like butter, and I want them to taste like the best butter I can find.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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