As I generously smeared a thick swath of Downey's honey butter on my toast, I wondered if I was using too much. Should I practise butter-triggered caution or "honey is good for you" liberty? Ultimately, I gave my knife free rein – I couldn't wait to taste the aching sweetness of honey tempered with the creamy, rich notes of fresh butter.
The Internet is brimming with DIY honey-butter recipes, all with varying proportions of butter and honey. Making my own at home (combining 50 per cent raw honey and 50 per cent butter), I soon realized that not all honey butters are created equal. My recipe resulted in what I would call a "flavoured butter" – extremely tasty, but akin to a savoury compound butter (scented with herbs or spices) that's firm when cold. Downey's is spreadable straight from the fridge and wondrously distinctive in flavour.
Made in Manheim, Pa., Downey's honey butter has recently become available in Canada, where the product has its roots. The brand was created in 1942 by Brockville, Ont., native James Downey. C.W. Sadd purchased the product from Mr. Downey in 1953 and it became a small family business (today, there are five employees, including current owner Kevin Sadd).
The spread resembles creamed honey but softer. At room temperature, it becomes runnier and can be drizzled. It's made with mild clover honey, and the addition of butter acts as a milky bumper that curbs honey's puckering sweetness. The finish has the mouth-coating feel of melted caramel. The product will last well over a year in the fridge or a good six weeks at room temperature.
Unlike similar products, Downey's honey butter can take four to eight weeks to produce. "Because we use no additives or preservatives it is necessary to tend to these natural ingredients ( honey and butter ) through a time intensive process," explains Mr. Sadd.
Once I was satisfied that the original product was life-changing (at least to a toasted English muffin), I tasted the cinnamon version. If you have even the slightest weakness for a warm cinnamon bun, you will find it irresistible (I am typing with one hand and licking the spoon with the other.)
Mention the words "honey butter" to people and you'll evoke a smile and a nostalgic response. Often they will remember eating it as a childhood treat (McFeeters, made in Ingersoll, Ont., often comes up), or recall their grandmother making it at home.
To dig further back into its origins, I contacted Nathalie Cooke at McGill University, the editor of What's to Eat?: Entrées in Canadian Food History. She explained that in earlier decades honey was a primary sweetener; flavoured honeys were common when canning was a family practice.
But even earlier, the addition of honey was useful because it allowed for butter to be preserved for longer periods of time and without the addition of salt. An 1879 issue of The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (a Montreal weekly) mentions that an ounce of honey for a pound of butter allows "for an agreeable taste, will keep for years, and might be useful on long voyages; but as the proportion of honey is considerable, it may not agree with some constitutions." How our sweet tooth has evolved.
Downey's characteristic texture, with its creamy consistency and pleasant hint of graininess, also owes a nod to another Canadian. Tidbits of family history speak of the involvement of E.J. Dyce in creating the secret recipe. Dr. Dyce was a famous apiculturist born in Meaford, Ont., who patented the process of making creamed honey (controlling its crystallization), a technique that went on to be used worldwide.
Honey butter, which slowly disappeared from stores over the past 15 to 20 years, is making its way back onto the shelves with the arrival of Downey's. In many ways, it's a homecoming. Sweet.
Downey's is currently available at Sobeys in Ontario and specialty stores in Edmonton, with plans to expand to other provinces.