In most Japanese supermarkets, sweet cream butter, or muhakkō batā dominates the shelves, but in recent years cultured butter, hakkō batā — a type of butter common in continental Europe — can be found in upscale supermarkets such as Seijo Ishii, due to the popularity of Echire butter, a French butter considered the best in the world. The smoothness of the butter makes it a popular choice for patissiers.
The brand’s Tokyo shop in Marunouchi, Echire Maison du Beurre, opened five years ago primarily to sell Echire butter at ¥363 for 30 grams.
So popular is the butter, a line gathers outside Echire Maison du Beurre an hour before it opens on weekdays. The store’s light croissants, made only with Echire butter, sell out by noon, and customers trying to get their hands on the Gateau Echire Nature, a butter cake (¥4,320) shaped like blocks of butter pressed from traditional wooden molds, have to be quick: The store only bakes a limited amount — a number that the brand manager wouldn’t divulge — each day.
“The churn used to make the butter is made of wood, which is rare these days, since most places have switched to stainless steel equipment,” says the brand manager from the marketing department at Kataoka & Co., Ltd., which imports the butter into Japan from France.
Echire butter, like all cultured butters, comes with a mild acidic taste similar to yogurt. The flavor may be off-putting to Japanese consumers, who are used to butter that has not gone through the fermentation process. Unlike average butter found in Japanese supermarkets, cultured butter is lighter on the stomach and can be even consumed straight from the packaging with a spoon — but it’s not something the makers of Echire recommend.
“The best way to eat Echire butter is to enjoy it on bread. It doesn’t have an oily taste and the aftertaste is clear, so you can spread it thickly,” says the brand manager.
The art of making European-style butter is not limited to the French. Calpis Co., Ltd., famous for its milky sweet soft drink of the same name, also produces the less well-known Calpis Selected Butter, which, like Echire, can be found in upscale supermarkets. The butter, which was first produced in 1963 and is made from a byproduct of the drink, comes in salted and unsalted forms, but the price tag may scare away anyone except serious butter lovers and bakers: salted at ¥1, 400, excluding tax, per 450 grams, and unsalted at ¥1, 450. Since it takes approximately 30 bottles of Calpis to make 450 grams of butter, it’s a commodity that comes in limited quantities.
The Imperial Hotel Kitchen (www.imperialkitchen.co.jp) also makes fine cultured butter worthy of an emperor’s taste buds. It’s ¥80 (excluding tax) for a small jar of the precious spread, which is served at tables in the Imperial Hotel. The butter is produced with milk from Hokkaido using a traditional churning method, and the company claims that cooking with the butter will bring out its “sour and rich flavor.”
For butter straight from the source, Yamanaka Farm in Hokkaido (www9.ocn.ne.jp/~yamafarm) makes butter that tastes as if it uses milk straight from the cow. Although it has been making premium uncultured butter (¥850 a tin) for the past 11 years, it is only in the last five to six that it has been churning out European-style cultured butter (¥950 a tin), which is slightly more expensive due to the added process of allowing the butter to ferment.
“I think people are more aware of the existence of cultured butter, but we still get a lot of questions asking about the difference between cultured and uncultured butter,” says Sentaro Yamanaka, who runs the dairy farm.
Nonetheless, most of the farm’s customers are buyers of luxury goods who “understand the subtleties in taste of the butter,” according to Yamanaka.
The farm’s products can be purchased via its website, but some stores that specialize in selling goods from Hokkaido, such as Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza in Yurakucho, also sell it, though at a slightly higher price. Yamanaka recommends using the website if you want to buy in bulk, but if you want just one or two cans, the cultured butter sells for ¥1,125 in a specialty shop.
“Butter is not something you eat because you have bread,” says Yamanaka, “But, you eat bread because you have butter.”
Echire Maison du Beurre, Marunouchi Brick Square 1F, Marunouchi 2-6-1, Chiyoda-ku; 03-6269-9840; www.echire-shop.jp. Dosanko Plaza, Tokyo Kotsukaikan 1F, 2-10-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 03-5224-3800; carry the product; www.dosanko-plaza.jp/index.html.
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