Diane St. Clair has the best butter deal going in Vermont — perhaps anywhere. For the last decade, the owner of the cheekily named Animal Farm in Orwell (think George) has been producing farmstead butter — meaning made by hand — from a small herd of Jersey cows.
St. Clair knew the stuff was good: fresh, fragrant, the color of sunshine. But how good? Early in her farming endeavor, she decided to get a professional opinion from one of the best chefs in the country. She sent a sample to Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. He loved it so much, he’s been ordering it ever since.
It was a farm-to-table relationship made in heaven. Animal Farm butter is served at the French Laundry and Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se, as well as at Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park in Boston. Patrons at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op can also find it there — occasionally. Even at $19.99 a pound, the limited number of tubs sells out quickly, according to cheese buyer Wendy Stewart. She’s quick to caution potential shoppers that the store will not have any more Animal Farm butter until August.
For the past few years, St. Clair also has been quietly selling buttermilk around New England and in New York City; it’s on dairy shelves at local natural-foods stores. This foray was something of a “soft opening” for a product that is the star of St. Clair’s new book, The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections From a Small Vermont Dairy. Beautifully photographed by Colin Clark, it features life-on-the-farm passages in St. Clair’s direct prose, buttermilk FAQs and lore, instructions on making it, and recipes using it.
Last Friday in Bristol, the farmer-author celebrated the book’s publication by hosting a prix-fixe dinner at Mary’s Restaurant, along with Inn at Baldwin Creek owners Linda Harmon and Doug Mack. The menu, of course, featured items made with buttermilk.
It was an appropriate venue: Mary’s, now in its 30th year, was a pioneer in Vermont’s farm-to-table movement. Most of the Friday night diners at the nearly full restaurant had arrived for the buttermilk fare, and even the few who hadn’t couldn’t miss the special theme. Becky Dayton of Middlebury’s Vermont Book Shop had neatly arranged a display of the cookbooks near the entrance, and St. Clair herself was offering shot glasses of buttermilk to any and all takers.
Not surprisingly, slugging the slightly chilled beverage was the best way to taste the stuff. It was creamy and a little tart, with tiny flecks of butter floating on top. For me, it was a first; I’d consumed buttermilk in foods — such as classic buttermilk biscuits — without thinking much about it. But I’d never sipped it straight, as St. Clair describes doing routinely as a kid at her Austrian grandparents’ house in the Catskills.
“There was a little general store at the end of our dirt road, and my big job, at the age of seven or eight, was to take fifty cents and walk to the store every day to get a fresh quart of the wonderful drink,” she writes in the introduction to her book. “My grandfather would sneak a taste right from the container when he came in from gardening and my grandmother wasn’t looking.”
Though the shot St. Clair served at Mary’s was tasty, I’m not a milk drinker as a rule. Indeed, I have to confess that before reading her book, I wasn’t entirely sure what buttermilk was, and erroneously assumed it had a higher fat content than regular milk. After all, butter is in its name. Turns out, a cup of buttermilk has only about 2.2 grams of fat (roughly equivalent to 1 percent regular milk). By contrast, whole milk has 8 grams per cup. The calories? Buttermilk, 99; whole milk, 148.
Here’s St. Clair’s explanation for anyone else who may be fuzzy on where buttermilk comes from:
I gently separate the cream that has risen on each day’s milk using a large ladle. I pasteurize this cream, cool it, and add a lactic acid culture to the cream. Over the course of 24 hours, the lactic acid bacteria do their magic, increasing the acidity of the cream, lowering its pH; and the casein, the primary milk protein, precipitates, causing the clabbering (souring) of the cream. This ripened cream is indeed crème fraîche, and is ready to be churned. Through churning, the cream “comes”; that is, the milk fats are joined, separating them from other parts of the cream. What we have in the churn are butter “grains” and the water-based portion of the cream — buttermilk.
If that sounds labor intensive, it is. Never mind that St. Clair milks her cows at 5:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. every single day, lugs 50-pound buckets of milk around and does all the other hard work that’s de rigueur in farming.
As she explains in Chapter One, you can make buttermilk at home in your own kitchen. St. Clair calls the process “immensely rewarding, practical and cost-effective,” and she makes it sound relatively straightforward, like an engaging weekend project. That is, if you have things like a thermometer, a fine-mesh strainer and patience. Still, there’s a good chance home cooks who are fully employed at day jobs will prefer to grab some buttermilk at the store. (Which is exactly what I did the other day at City Market in Burlington, where Animal Farm buttermilk sells for $4.69 a quart.)
St. Clair is adamant that factory-made buttermilk is not the same as her product. But, whether you make your own or purchase farm-fresh buttermilk, using it to alter recipes that call for milk is a fun way to experiment.
Which brings us back to Mary’s Restaurant and the buttermilk dinner, which featured two courses that showcased the unique flavor of buttermilk and two where it was far less detectable. The two stand-out courses were the first and last, and both were exceptionally yummy: the passed appetizer, tiny slices of buttermilk-Béchamel pizza; and the dessert, a raspberry-buttermilk tart. In both instances, the tang of buttermilk came through and enhanced the flavors.
The tart came with a dollop of lu.lu artisan ice cream, vanilla made with buttermilk and a streak of strawberries. As it happened, our server was Martha Mack, bar manager of Mary’s and proprietor of lu.lu, which uses eggs from the inn’s farm and serves up small batches at its store in downtown Bristol.
The second appetizer was salmon cakes with buttermilk tartar sauce. The two morsel-sized rounds were creamy and delicious, but the sauce was, curiously, a little less tart than tartar usually is — though it was pleasantly light in consistency. Perhaps the acidity of the condiment’s sweet-pickle relish overwhelmed the buttermilk’s more subtle piquancy.
The dairy product was not at all obvious in the main course of buttermilk fried chicken with mashed potatoes and other vegetables. If we hadn’t been told, we wouldn’t have known the meat had been marinated in buttermilk to tenderize it, or that the stuff was used in the mashed potatoes. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t flavorful. And, at the very least, these recipes — all of them from St. Clair’s cookbook — show how buttermilk can be used in place of higher-fat dairy options.
When dishes are milk-centric to begin with, buttermilk’s distinct flavor can give them a little edge. To name just two examples from The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook, I’m eager to try St. Clair’s minted-pea-and-buttermilk soup and buttermilk panna cotta. Also, I can see the potential of buttermilk in one summertime-favorite soup she doesn’t include: vichyssoise.
Meanwhile, inspired by the dinner, I spooned some buttermilk into my deviled-egg mashup over the weekend, rendering it smoother and just a teensy bit tart. Now the rest of that quart jug awaits.
"The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections From a Small Vermont Dairy" by Diane St. Clair, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 210 pages. $27.99.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Trying the Tang"