2008 Australian-made cultured butter

Image: Facebook - Bangalow Cheese Co. 2013

Australia has a long history of butter-making. Originally it was an on-farm product but, in the late 19th century, the advent of the mechanical cream separator led to the establishment of butter factories owned by dairy co-operatives.  For more than a century, those factories (many eventually owned by giant corporates) churned out the regular salted butter Aussies had come to expect. Cultured butter, a standard product in Europe, was unheard of.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Australians’ tastes had become considerably more diverse. Our chefs had elevated their craft to the highest levels and were seeking the finest ingredients – ideally from local sources but, if necessary, from around the world. Cultured butter was among the specialty products typically imported by patisseries and restaurants to give their food that extra je ne sais quoi. So it wasn’t surprising that some enterprising butter-makers decided to make it here in Oz.

An early starter was the Bangalow Cheese Company of Byron Bay, founded by cheese-maker Justin Telfer.  In January 2011, he commented: “At Bangalow Cheese Co. we have been making a delicious 100% natural hand-made cultured butter for more than 2 years now. It has a fresh and milky character and a smooth texture that melts away in your mouth. We were awarded a silver medal at the 2010 Sydney Royal Show.”  The Nimbin Valley Dairy has owned the company, renamed the Byron Bay Cheese Company, since 2015 and their butter is now produced under the Byron Bay brand.

While Bangalow cultured butter remained a niche product sold mainly through farmers’ markets, 2009 saw the beginnings of a more ambitious enterprise when Pierre Issa and his wife, Melissa Altman, founded Pepe Saya. Selling their first wheel of butter at the Carriageworks Farmers Market in Everleigh, Sydney, the pair soon moved on to supply retail stores and food service businesses throughout Australia. By 2012, Pepe Saya cultured butter was being served to Qantas’s first class passengers and by 2020, after moving twice to larger factories, the company was exporting to the USA and Asia. What makes their butter better? According to their website it’s batch churned from single origin cream inoculated with a lactobacillus culture. With the culture, the cream develops a slight tang and, they say, a full buttery taste before churning.

These pioneers were soon joined by others. In Myrtleford, Victoria, a mother-and-daughter team began a small operation in a butter factory that had been disused since the mid-1960s. The business was relocated to nearby Moyhu in 2016, but now appears defunct. By 2012, the Meander Valley Dairy, a Tasmanian family-owned business, had their cultured butter on the market. More followed. The attractively named Lard Ass Butter was born in 2017 on Victoria’s surf coast while even old favourite Western Star, owned by dairy giant Fonterra, was producing an award-winning cultured butter by 2018.  And these days there are a number of others including Victorian producers Gippsland Jersey and St David.

While Pepe Saya remains the most talked-about brand in the category and offers the widest range, it may not be best-of-breed. In 2022, the consumer organisation CHOICE conducted a taste test of supermarket butters with a panel of eight experts including chefs, food technologists and show judges. Butters were scored 90 per cent on taste and 10 per cent on nutritional quality. There were only three products reviewed in the cultured butter category: Pepe Saya, Meander Valley and Lard Ass. Meander Valley came out on top, with a score of 76 per cent, with the others neck and neck on 60 per cent (Lard Ass) and 59 per cent (Pepe Sayer).

For the home cook, a big issue is availability. While Western Star’s cultured butter is stocked at Coles and Woolworths, the others require a bit more research to track down. Then there’s price. Predictably, the Western Star product is considerably cheaper than the boutique brands. Will the more accessible price point make cultured butter a preferred choice in Aussie homes? Unlikely, don’t you think?

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