Butter: it doesn’t get better than this

“I spent a year investigating different kinds of butters, the cows, the milks, and how to make butter as buttery as I could.” Grant Harrington, who’s worked in Michelin-starred kitchens around the globe, talks mornings and butter with The Early Hour…

After working in Michelin-starred kitchens for chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Magnus Nilsson, Grant Harrington set out on a quest to make the butteriest butter he possibly could. Since launching his business, Ampersand, in 2014, he now supplies restaurants like Story and Restaurant Sat Bains, as well as selling rounds to the punters at markets. We chat to him about his business, his mornings, and why good butter can be the making of a good breakfast.

What time are you up in the morning?
Every day is different. Monday mornings are the earliest because the cream arrives at 5am. I’m usually up at 7am the other days, but I might lie in til 8am on a Friday. Monday is the day you want to get going, and if you’re going to lie in any day, it’ll be Friday.

What do you do first thing?
I start with walking the dog. He’s injured at the moment, so my mornings feel a bit derelict. But normally I take him for a big run out around the fields on the farm here, in Oxfordshire.

What does an ordinary day look like for you?
Every day is different. The cream arrives on Monday so I sour it that day, on Tuesdays I portion it up and do deliveries on Wednesdays, then more portioning on Thursday, more deliveries on Friday. I’m at Druid Street Market on Saturdays and I spend Sundays churning butter for the next week.

Why does good butter matter?
It’s such a staple. It’s an ingredient that’s everywhere and it should be buttery. I was working as a chef at Fäviken (a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sweden), and one of the first things I ate when I arrived was the butter. It was so deliciously buttery, more than any butter I’d ever eaten, and I was hooked. All I could think about was why that butter was so good, why it was so much better than English butter.

I came back to the UK and my plan was to do the food for my brother’s wedding and then start work at another restaurant. I made butter for that wedding, and everyone raved about it, but I also bust my anterior cruciate ligament while I was dancing, so I ended up spending a year doing horrible physio. That gave me time to plan how I was going to bring buttery butter to the UK. I spent a year investigating different kinds of butters, the cows, the milks, and how to make butter as buttery as I could. That was where the idea for the business came from.

Depending on what’s growing in the fields and what the cows are eating – summer flowers or spring grass – it dramatically changes the flavour of the milk

What makes butter buttery?
Diacetyl and butyric acid. They’re both natural by-products of fermenting or culturing milk. Diacetyl has a buttery taste, and butyric acid gives it this umami kind of flavour. It’s hard to pin down, but at the end the butter should be savoury and creamy and slightly sweet. Too much of either of them and it makes the butter taste rancid and horrible.

I ferment the cream for a whole week. The longer you ferment it, the sourer it gets. I experimented with lots of different pH levels to work out the perfect amount of acidity for the flavour I want. Then I churn it.

What kind of milk do you use?
I get unpasteurised cream from a Jersey herd near to me on the farm in Oxfordshire. Milk is really seasonal, so depending on what’s growing in the fields and what the cows are eating – summer flowers or spring grass – it dramatically changes the flavour of the milk.

In summer the milk might be more floral flavoured, whereas in winter it will have a more delicate flavour. So when I’m culturing butter, I’m also culturing the bacteria that was most prevalent in that field before the cows were milked, and that makes those particular flavours thrive.

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It seems like quite an unusual way to make butter…
In the old days they’d leave milk to naturally separate over the course of a day and it would naturally ferment and sour. That was culturing the butter and then they’d churn that. Now we’ve modernised the process, I add bacteria to it like you do with cheese, let it ferment and then churn that. If you use fresh cream it comes out as a fresh fatty butter like the stuff you buy in the supermarkets. My way gives it more buttery flavour.

Is that all that’s different about the way you make your butter?
No. When you churn the soured cream the fat globules begin to come together into what’s called popcorn. It looks a bit like scrambled egg, and as it turns the buttermilk drains off. Lots of butter makers wash the clumps of butter at this point, but because buttermilk is quite acidic and it has live bacteria in it I want to keep it in that. That acidity is almost sweet, and it really adds to the butteriness.

Then I hand knead it to get as much liquid out as I can, leave it to cool, knead it some more, spread it out, salt it and then shape it into portions.

What’s your favourite way to eat butter in the morning?
I’m not really a breakfast eater, but I do put my unsalted butter into coffee and make it bulletproof. It’s like a latte, really thick and creamy. Some of my customers use my salted butter, which apparently is quite a Japanese way to drink it. I’ll crack on with work and then eat breakfast later. It’s much more sociable because everyone’s awake by late morning. Then I’d say have poached eggs, on good toast with buttery butter. Of course.