I thought I was being a rebel when I smuggled the butter past Customs. Such is my commitment to high-quality dairy products, I was willing to risk all manner of punishment (Fines? No-fly? Floggings? Fine with me.) to enjoy this sumptuous Abernethy butter in the comfort of my Brooklyn kitchen. As it turned out, it’s perfectly legal to haul hard cheese, butter, and various other dairy products from the UK to the US, but I dug the frisson of it all. After the visit to the Edinburgh cheese shop, I lovingly carried the log from one hotel room fridge to another, snatching it out at the last possible second before heading to the airport, swaddling it in layers of dog-sniff-proof pages from The Scotsman newspaper and tucking it into my checked luggage. Goodbye, little butter lump. See you on the other side of the Atlantic.
It was an awful lot of fuss, but good butter is worth it to me. I grew up in a margarine household, which suited me just fine until my Grandmother Kinsman came to visit one weekend and suddenly everything tasted better. She was an excellent cook, but there was no mystical nonna kitchen witchery afoot; my dad just happened to buy real butter when she came to town because she loved it and he wanted to make her happy.
I suppose I inherited that from both of them. Real, good butter makes everything better, even my mood. When I see a dish, crock, or stick of air-slumped butter on the table, I know I’m in for a meal made by someone who gives a damn about the details. I know that I do. This is not to say that I’m going full-glut on every bit of butter I add to everything I cook. If I’m frying eggs or making a pound cake, I’ll go for a non-fussy stick, but if it’s the star of the show on toast, a muffin, a bagel, a scone, it’s gonna be softened, clever, full-fat, and fancy.
The best butter tastes of a place—the salt of a coastline, the verdant meadows upon which the dairy cows, goats, or sheep munched and belched—and of the hands that made it. There’s plenty of excellent machine-churned butter out there, and I’ll spread it on gratefully. But I maintain that you can feel and taste a palpable difference when it’s handmade by a person whose life’s work this is. There’s alchemy in the motion that transforms cream into butter, and tremendous measure of patience. Allison and Will Abernathy—the auteurs of the “smuggled” butter—say they spend up to 10 hours a day churning cream to the standards of her family’s handed-down recipe. There’s nothing to hide behind, just local Lagan Valley cream, salt, and an abundance of work. It matters to them.
It matters to me, too. I’m not suggesting that every scoop of butter has to be a religious experience or put me at risk for committing a minor crime, but when it’s good, I notice it with every bite until it’s gone. It’s a few dollars extra, yes, and there are definitely times in my life when it would have been an unforgivable indulgence, but right now while I am lucky, I will invest in good butter and take the time to think ahead, leave it out on the counter, and serve it to my guests in the hope that the habit spreads.