Buttermilk is not only for drinking straight out of the glass, it’s a complementary component in all manner of culinary delights.
You don’t have to tell that to Diane St. Clair, owner of a small Vermont farm where butter and buttermilk are the prized stock-in-trade.
A former public health officer in the Big Apple, St. Clair moved to the Green Mountain State nearly three decades ago and today not only supplies some of the nation’s top restaurants with nonpareil butter but also finds herself giving the world advice on how to incorporate buttermilk into everyday cooking.
St. Clair is the author of a new book published a week ago, “The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from a Small Vermont Dairy” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $27.99). It’s a well-written, appealingly documented effort in which the author shares not only her humble, pastoral life but the history of buttermilk, its folklore uses, how to make butter and buttermilk and dozens of tasty recipes for everything from buttermilk mac-and-cheese to buttermilk fudge, buttermilk egg salad and buttermilk lasagne.
Buttermilk was originally produced while making butter. The milk would often be slightly soured by naturally occurring bacteria before and during churning, giving the remaining butter-flecked liquid a rich, tangy flavor that was naturally full of nutrients. Rather than discard the buttermilk, dairy farms used it for drinking, for leavening bread and for baked goods. The acid in buttermilk creates a rich, tangy flavor and tender crumb that is often preferred to commercial baking powder by many bakers today.
Today, buttermilk is not a byproduct of butter-making, but is made from nonfat or low-fat milk that is “cultured” with lactic acid bacteria. Cultured buttermilk is low in fat and calories but maintains its traditional tangy flavor and creamy texture.
“I came to love buttermilk as a tangy, cool summer drink after spending summers with my Austrian grandparents, who had a log cabin in New York’s Catskill Mountains,” St. Clair writes in the introduction to her new book. “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 50 cents and walk to the store every day to get a fresh quart of the wonderful drink.
“My grandfather would sneak a taste right from the container when he came in from gardening and my grandmother wasn’t looking. We mixed buttermilk with sour cream and a little sugar and then covered the blueberries and raspberries we had just picked in the mountains with the luscious, tart cream — much better than ice cream!
“My grandmother mixed buttermilk into her beet soup, added it to crusts for extra flakiness when baking blueberry pies and mixed a little into mayonnaise when making egg salad to enliven the flavor. But mostly, we drank the stuff, and I probably love buttermilk today because it reminds me of those wondrous summers of innocence and discovery spent with my grandparents.”
From simple homemade butter to buttermilk dulce de leche cheesecake, “The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook” introduces readers to the folklore, uses and benefits of buttermilk.
In addition to those tempting recipes, the author notes that “throughout history, buttermilk applied externally has been held to have major benefits to the skin. And there may be some scientific basis for some of the claims. Buttermilk contains alpha-hydroxy acids, the same acids that are the active ingredient in the most expensive face creams.”
Included as well are some classic buttermilk skin treatments handed down through the years, including its use as a cleanser, an age spot lightener, an exfoliator, a skin softener and a sunburn soother.
While St. Clair isn’t endorsing any of the “buttermilk home remedies” contained in her new book, she does point out there’s considerable folklore holding that by drinking a large glass of buttermilk before going out into the hot sun, one can prevent heat stroke. To eliminate canker sores, “hold a mouthful of buttermilk against the sore several times a day,” another home remedy suggests.
In addition to the author’s stories about her daily life and the changing seasons at Animal Farm, St. Clair offers a range of recipes that include maple buttermilk sandwich bread, creamy onion bisque with red pepper rouille, fresh berry buttermilk cake and salmon cakes with buttermilk tartar sauce.
Register readers can try their hand at one or more of the recipes the author offers in today’s paper: buttermilk lasagne, buttermilk panna cotta and spicy summer corn pudding.
The new book can be found at area retail bookstores and at e-tailers that stock cookbooks.
Public health to public satisfaction
With a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University, St. Clair decided to stay in New York City to work in her chosen field.
“I had great ideals about what I could accomplish,” she said during a phone conversation last weekend. “But I found myself doing little more than writing memos and attending meetings.”
While searching for a larger accommodation for her family, St. Clair and her husband decided to make a significant transition from urban to country living. They settled in Vermont, where she continued to work in public health.
“As a kid I rode horses,” she said, “so I got a team of draft horses and started logging and doing some farm work for hire. After I had my second child, we moved onto our own farm and got a family cow. She gave so much milk I wound up making cheese and butter.” As the farm was in a town named Orwell, St. Clair felt it only right that they call the property Animal Farm.
St. Clair said there was a noted absence of artisan butter-makers in this country some 12 years ago. “I found some out-of-print books (on butter making) from the late 1800s and decided to use a lot of those techniques.”
She learned right off the bat that she couldn’t sell her butter unless she obtained a state license. But when she contacted Vermont agricultural regulators, “they laughed at me and said it would be impossible because I was only going to produce a small amount.”
Undaunted, St. Clair telephoned her legislative representative who then had a word or two with ag officials. Those same officials were apologetic and wound up helping St. Clair get started.
“But first I had to find someone who’d make the (smaller-in-scope) equipment that I needed,” she continued. “That whole process took me a year. By then I had two cows.”
St. Clair felt her cultured butter was pretty good but wanted a second opinion. Not any opinion, mind you, but the opinion of someone she felt would give her an expert’s take on the new product.
This new entrepreneur had just finished reading a book about chefs and restaurants in the U.S., and one of those discussed was Thomas Keller, “owner of the French Laundry, which (I read) was the best restaurant in the United States. So I sent him a handwritten note and asked if he would give me an opinion about my butter.”
Keller readily agreed and asked St. Clair to send him a sample. She shipped a FedEx box of her butter to Keller’s restaurant in Yountville.
“Who are you?” Keller inquired of St. Clair once he’d tasted the butter. “It’s the most amazing butter I ever tasted” is what she remembers Keller telling her on the phone. He also asked her to send him all the butter she had made. “He didn’t even ask the cost,” she added.
Keller also asked St. Clair if she could double the herd by getting two more cows so he could get an ample supply of butter for his restaurant operations. “Then, when he opened Per Se in New York, he asked me if I could get four more cows,” she noted.
“Since I met Diane over a decade ago, she has shown an unwavering dedication to her family, to her farm and livestock, and most important to the quality of butter she produces on a daily basis,” Keller writes in a back-cover endorsement of her new book.
“As with anything she undertakes, ‘The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook’ is a product of thought and care. Through her recipes, devoted entirely to what she describes as the ‘elixir of the human race,’ Diane draws you into the rhythms of life on a farm. It is all at once introspective and celebratory. It is a life filled with respect.”
Keller isn’t the only chef/restaurateur who gets butter from Animal Farm. So does Barbara Lynch, a chef who owns and operates several restaurants in Boston. And next year, it will also go to the Inn at Little Washington, the luxury country inn in Virginia. A few Vermont residents also have access to the butter.
“The first time I tasted Diane’s butter, I was blown away,” Lynch declares in another endorsement of the new book. “And when I later sampled her buttermilk, it was a revelation — gorgeous globs of that golden butter suspended in creamy, tangy buttermilk. Of course, I wanted to put it in everything. ... This book beautifully shares both her life as a dairy farmer and artisan, and many of her incredible recipes, and will have you seeking out great buttermilk to cook and bake all year round.”
St. Clair has been bottling her buttermilk for three years, and it is sold throughout New England by Provisions International and in New York City through Saxelby Cheesemongers.