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In search of higher-fat butter Add to ...

When she moved to Canada three years ago, Nadège Nourian, a fourth-generation pâtissier from Lyon, France, had every confidence she could reproduce the supremely flaky, buttery croissants and pain au chocolat she’d mastered over a lifetime of training back at home.

But Ms. Nourian, who opened a patisserie on Toronto’s west side soon after arriving here, struggled with her first batches. While the flour and yeast were a little different from what she was used to, Canadian butter, she soon realized, was not even close.

Great croissants are made by rolling broad, thin sheets of butter into layer upon layer of butter-enriched dough. Here, the butter kept cracking as she rolled it. Even worse, the paper-thin layers, called feuilletage, didn’t separate and puff up in baking they way they should.

It took the baker, who now runs two Toronto patisseries called Nadège, months of trial and error to turn out pretty good, but not perfect, croissants.

“Right now the quality we make is really high, it is really good here for Toronto, and it is really good as well for France,” she says. “But you know when you know you can do better?”

Canada is a butter backwater, with less variety and quality and far higher prices than nearly any other food-loving nation. In Europe and the United States, it’s available in myriad permutations, from gently nutty regional butters, to fragrant, seasonal butters made with the summer milk of a single herd, to extra high-fat “dry” compositions used in baking.

In Canada, butter is just butter. Give or take a few very minor variations, it’s a monopoly-produced dairy commodity, the same from coast to coast.

And as Ms. Nouiran and scores of other top pâtissiers have realized, Canadian butter is uniformly made with a government-mandated 80-per-cent fat content, while most butter in Europe – the stuff that makes for great pastries – starts at 82 or 83 per cent. What’s worse, Canada’s government levies a 289.5-per-cent tariff on all but a tiny quantity of foreign butter. Until last week, when a salesman named Greg Nogler walked into her patisserie, Ms. Nourian was stuck.

Mr. Nogler is the head of marketing for Stirling Creamery Ltd., a mid-sized dairy in central Ontario. What he brought to Ms. Nourian was a five-kilogram sample of his latest product: an 84-per-cent-fat, barrel-churned butter. As of January, an unsalted version of the butter is available to bakers and food processors nationally. A salted version is also available in a handful of independent grocers in Ontario.

“I am so excited,” Ms. Nourian said the day after receiving the sample. She planned to use it in a test batch of croissants, which would be ready by the end of the week.

Mr. Nogler, who worked in marketing at Kraft Canada, Inc. before joining Stirling, remembers being astonished the first time he took a serious stroll through the butter aisle.

“Look at margarine: You can get omega 3 margarine, you can get sunflower margarine and olive oil margarine – this, that and the other thing – and it doesn’t make any of it much better. It’s great marketing, that’s all,” Mr. Nogler recounted. “Meantime the butter guys are sitting on their hands.”

With just 20 employees and $15-million in annual revenues, Stirling is a tiny creamery. So he started looking for points of difference between his company and all the other manufacturers. Where nearly every other butter processor in Canada uses high-tech machines to turn out a continuous stream of butter, Stirling still churns theirs in stainless steel barrels, batch by batch. Mr. Nogler commissioned new labels that put the words “barrel-churned” right on the front.

Many other options aren’t allowed, however. You can’t produce a single-herd butter in any large quantity, for instance, because under Canada’s supply-managed dairy monopoly system you have to use milk from the provincial pool. You can’t do much about packaging (butter must be sold in a printed foil wrapper), or make tangy, naturally cultured butter from raw cream that’s been allowed to gently ferment (no raw milk, please, we’re Canadian).

The law also stipulates that Canadian butter must have a minimum 80-per-cent fat content. As Mr. Nogler noted, however, it does not invoke an upper limit.

At the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto about a year ago, Mr. Nogler noticed that a few of the high-end cheese shops were selling 250-gram balls of imported European butter, some of it advertising 84 per cent fat. The stores were selling it for as much as eight times the price of Canadian butter, or the equivalent of $35 a pound.

Mr. Nogler asked Chet Blair, Stirling’s master butter maker, whether he could make a high-fat butter. As it happened, it isn’t any harder. It’s just that nobody had bothered to try.

Three or 4 extra per cent of fat content may sound like a trifling difference, but it’s a massive one in the worlds of baking and chocolate making. Fat content affects butter’s flavour (more fat, more flavour), delivers creamier texture, and raises butter’s melting point. But most critically, fat content is a zero-sum proposition: The more fat a butter contains, the less room there is for water. Higher fat butter can contain between 10- and 20-per-cent less water than the usual stuff.

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