In chocolate making, that lower water content translates to confections that can stay fresh longer without the use of preservatives. In pastry, water acts like glue between dough layers, sticking them together when, ideally, they should separate (it’s the difference between flaky and bready). It’s not impossible to make an excellent croissant with Canadian butter – David Wilson, the head baker at Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, uses Lactantia brand butter. But Mr. Wilson is a rarity.
Thomas Haas, a master pâtissier based in Vancouver, has found a simple, but not particularly satisfying solution. Like many European-trained bakers here, he uses 84-per-cent butter from New Zealand that manages somehow to squeeze through Canada’s butter tariff blockade. “I feel guilty buying butter that’s been shipped halfway around the world just because it has more fat,” said Mr. Haas, who is considered one of the best pâtissiers on the continent. “But it’s important.”
Jennifer McLagan, a chef and cookbook author (one of her books, called Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, rhapsodizes about the importance of good butter), goes to even greater lengths. She often allows Canadian butter to soften before using it. She then wraps the butter in cheesecloth and squeezes all the water out.
As of this past weekend, I’m also convinced of at least a few of high-fat butter’s benefits, even if I am more than a little peeved that the company Stirling offers only salted at retail right now. (Salted butter, though it’s not as good for most baking, accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the market, Mr. Nogler said. The company couldn’t afford to take a bet on two retail versions at once.) While I didn’t bother using the butter for baking, it was exceedingly creamy and voluptuous tasting, if a tad too salty to my taste, when spread thick on fresh bread.
I’m hoping it’s just the first of many more interesting butters to launch in Canada. With a little bit of luck – and Mr. Nogler’s prodding – the butter makers might just get up off of their hands.
On Friday last week, Ms. Nourian’s first trial batch was ready, and throughout the morning she presented a few of her best customers with a blind taste test: half of a 84-per-cent-butter croissant and half of an 80-per-cent one, together on a single plate. They looked more or less identical: layer upon layer of golden feuilletage, with an airy web of buttery dough inside.
Ms. Nourian made a point of noting that this was her first effort. She also struggled a bit with the higher-fat butter, she admitted. You need to roll it at a different temperature to account for the different consistency, and she didn’t nail the temperature this time.
But the taste was the ultimate goal here. As I bit into the piece on the left and wiped the shards of buttery feuilletage from my chin, I thought, yes, this is very good pastry. It was buttery and clean-tasting, with a tiny hint of sweetness inside. I chewed, trying as hard as possible to look thoughtful about it. I swallowed, then took a sip of tea.
Next, I bit into the croissant on the right of the plate. It tasted almost identical. But then, I took a second bite, and the butter flavour kept building. There was a creamy, luxurious quality to the texture – a roundness, for lack of a better way of putting it – and a deeply buttery resonance about the taste.
“This is the 84-per-center,” I told her. She knew she still had work to do, but at the moment it didn’t matter. She smiled.
Making sense of butter-nomics
Though Canada's butter prices are among the world's highest, that reality affects home cooks far more than professional bakers and food manufacturers. Under the Special Milk Class Permit Program, run by the Canadian Dairy Commission, approved bakers and processors receive hefty rebates on their butter purchases. One baker we spoke with said he gets a rebate of between $60 and $90 for every $200 block of butter he buys.
The reason for the program, a Commission spokeswoman said, is that food manufacturers and bakers who export their products are allowed to import foreign butter without tariffs. Without the rebates, Canadian butter couldn't compete with the foreign stuff.
The rebate program is open to most bakers and processors who use butter, regardless of whether they export.
The Dairy Commission doesn't bother itself making the price of butter competitive for everyday consumers, however – we're generally barred from accessing the foreign stuff. Outside of its program for manufacturing exporters, the country allows in just 3,274 metric tonnes of foreign butter annually – less than 4 per cent of Canada's consumption. Anything beyond that is assessed a duty of 289.5 per cent.