Kerry Altiero, chef/owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland, says he appreciates the “craftsmanship and integrity” that goes into Casco Bay Butter Co.’s line of artisanal butters.
“But what they’ve really got is” – here, he raises his voice in glee – “the highest butterfat content I’ve ever experienced. It’s awesome. Give me the fat, with three a’s. Faaat. I tell you the truth, I eat it like cheese. I cut off a chunk and just eat it.”
Butter, to be considered butter, must contain 80 percent butterfat. Most grocery store butters hover close to this mark, while the pricier European-style butters that chefs love may reach 82 to 84 percent or so.
Since Casco Bay Butter Co. began using organic cream from the Maine company MOO Milk last year, its certified organic butters test out at 87 percent butterfat. Its conventional line tests at 84 percent.
If you haven’t heard of Casco Bay Butter Co., or seen its line of artisanal flavored butters on local store shelves, that may change soon. As the popularity of butter starts bouncing back, more people are searching for butters that meet that foodie trifecta of local, artisanal and organic.
Earlier this month, the American Butter Institute reported that U.S. butter consumption has reached its highest level in 40 years. In the last 12 years, Americans have increased their butter intake by 25 percent, and now eat about 5.6 pounds per person per year.
The increase has been attributed in part to the backlash against highly processed, “fake” foods, such as the trans fats in those margarines we once were told were good for us. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in November that it now wants to ban artificial trans fats in the food supply.) The backlash is captured perfectly in the new favorite catch phrase of butter lovers: “I trust cows more than chemists.”
Consumers also have been wooed over to butter by the prolific use of the real stuff by chefs on food TV. The seductive flavor of real butter somehow makes it easier to swallow the guilt that once came along with consuming extra-saturated fat.
The owners of Portland-based Casco Bay Butter Co. are seeing this relaxed attitude toward real butter reflected in their sales. Winter is usually a slower season for them, since there aren’t as many farmers markets around and it’s not a busy time of year for restaurants, but the tiny company has seen a 300 percent increase in sales this winter over previous years.
Last weekend, their products debuted at Zabar’s in New York City, where a 5.5-ounce tub of their butter that sells for $5 to $8 here in Maine is priced at $10.95.
Dan Patry, founder of Kate’s – another local butter – says his sales have also risen steadily as the public turns its back on processed foods.
“People are looking for local, number one, and they’re looking for all-natural,” Patry said. “If you stop and think about it, there’s nothing in (butter) but cream and sea salt. It’s passed the test of time. They’ve made butter since camels roamed the desert, you know?”
IT STARTED WITH THE KITCHEN AID
The founders of Casco Bay Butter Co. are Alicia Menard, 37, and her partner, Jennell Carter, 36. Menard’s brother, Andrew, 38, helps with production. The company got its start a few years ago, when the two women started playing around with making butter in their Kitchen Aid mixer at home. They advanced to experimenting with different flavors, making compound butters with ingredients like lemon zest and chives, and gave away the results to friends and family.
They eventually got a food license, and by the summer of 2012 were selling their butters at the Kennebunk Farmers Market. They started with just a few flavors: sea salt, unsalted, lemon chive, honey, and garlic and herb. By the end of the summer, they had about 15 flavored butters in their line-up. They made fruit butters with strawberries and bluberries, and cilantro-lime butter for corn on the cob and grilled shrimp. When the holidays rolled around, they started making pumpkin maple, cranberry orange and gingerbread cookie butters.
As the company grew, Menard began doing some research on the butter industry and discovered that butter is “an artisanal niche that’s about to explode.”
“Butter was kind of following the path that artisan cheese followed maybe 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. “It used to be everybody had processed cheese in their fridge, and now people sort of seek out the cheese shops for high-end cheese.”
Menard also looked at artisanal butter as a value-added product that could help struggling New England dairy farmers. Oakhurst Dairy provides the cream for the company’s non-organic line, and last year they partnered with MOO Milk for their new organic line.
“Our eventual goal is to become exclusively organic,” Andrew Menard said. “In our primitive stage of development, we utilize both to keep us in business.”
After outgrowing two Kitchen Aid mixers – one they already owned, one purchased in the dead of night so they could keep up with production – Menard and Carter added a couple more borrowed from friends. A few weeks later, a relative gave them an old 21/2-gallon Titan mixer. They churned their butter in that used mixer for the first nine months, hand-squeezing out the buttermilk.
“I’m grateful that we started by hand,” Carter said, “because it taught us the chemistry of making butter.”
In December 2012, they started using a 30-gallon butter churn they bought from an old dairy in the Netherlands. Fifteen gallons of luscious cream goes in at a time, which makes 50 to 55 pounds of butter. The buttermilk is either dumped or sold to pig farmers. (When the company gets its own facility one day, that buttermilk will be bottled and sold to the public.)
Since they got the big churn, Casco Bay Butters have been made in a commercial kitchen at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, and packaged in one-pound logs or 5.5-ounce tubs. Right now, churning gets done twice a week, beginning at 4 p.m. and lasting at times until midnight. Sometimes Alicia, Jennell and Andrew sing to pass the time; sometimes they listen to the church choir practicing next door.
The churn chugs away like a washing machine while the three of them work on mixing flavors and packaging the butter that’s ready for sale. Occasionally Alicia opens the churn to check the cream and see if it’s about to “come to butter.” After a couple of hours, when the cream finally turns, it’s a beautiful, soft yellow – the color of daffodils. The yellow is even brighter in summer, when the cows are off hay and eating grass.
“In the early summer, you can taste the dandelion in the butter,” Carter said. “It’s pretty neat.”
The product line has expanded to about 20 flavors, with additions such as blue cheese (good on grilled steak) and truffle butter. The six organic flavors are sea salt, unsalted, cultured sea salt, cultured unsalted, garlic and herb, and salted caramel – a not-too-sweet butter that can be used with everything from scallops and caramelized onions to squash and sweet potatoes.
“A cultured butter is a European style,” Alicia Menard explained, “and there’s a live, active culture added to the churning process. We achieve that by infusing organic yogurt into the churning process. It gives it a nice, rich tanginess, and just a really nice taste and quality – a creaminess.”
The owners – who still have other, full-time jobs – develop flavors with the help of customer feedback, and test each flavor to see how it will work with certain foods. Sometimes adjustments have to be made.
“In the early days, we made garlic and herb and lemon chive using fresh garlic, fresh lemon and fresh herbs,” Alicia Menard said. “The shelf life just was not there.”
Dried herbs and granulated garlic have replaced the more fragile fresh ingredients.
Locally, Casco Bay Butters can be found at Browne Trading Co. and the Cabot Farmers’ Annex in Portland, Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland and When Pigs Fly in Freeport. The butters have been taken on by Crown O’ Maine, a distributor that may be able to help them get into the Boston market.
“Our success is breeding success,” Andrew Menard said, “because people are calling us out of the woodwork. It’s just amazing, the word of mouth. It’s really a snowball effect.”
CHEFS ARE CATCHING ON
At $10 a pound, the butters are a splurge. (The cultured organic butters are $12 a pound.) Most chefs try to use them where their richness will be noticed most – in sauces, in croissants. Chef Eric Flynn of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport was the first Maine chef to try the butters, and he said he now uses all their blends, including the organic cultured, the unsalted organic and the salted caramel, which is his personal favorite.
The butters also have been used at Fore Street, and Alicia Menard said Justin Walker, chef at Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, will be using them when he cooks at the James Beard House in March.
And then there’s Altiero, who says the difference between regular European-style butters and the Casco Bay products is “like the difference between corn oil and extra virgin (olive oil).”
Altiero uses the butters to finish dishes, but does not put them on Cafe Miranda’s tables for customers to dig into before dinner. He saves that kind of eating for himself and his staff.
The first time he put out a tub for his staff to sample, he recalls, it didn’t last long.
“It was like it was the middle of World War II,” Altiero said, “and they hadn’t seen real butter for, like, three years.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at [email protected]