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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In search of true buttermilk

My grandmother made her own buttermilk on the dairy farm. I remember vividly its characteristics: thin, a pale yellow tint, with a few residual specks of butter floating in it. Get high-fat milk from Jersey and Guernsey cows, give it time to settle, take the upper part, churn it to make butter which you remove, and let the residual liquid sour a little. Voila, buttermilk. The specks of butter were an accidental, decorative assurance of authenticity; by definition, buttermilk was a low-fat product.

Today's mega-dairies have mostly displaced the reddish-brown Jerseys and Guernseys by black-and-white Holsteins that produce more gallons of milk per head, although the milk of Holsteins is lower in fat and protein.

Look closely at the label of the "buttermilk" you buy. It is actually cultured milk — in other words, runny yogurt — with a lot of additives (modified food starch, guar gum, carrageenan, and locust gum). This is a mere simulation of true buttermilk, and a poor simulation at that. Its viscosity and bright white color betray it. What's on the shelves of upscale, health-conscious grocery stores is no different. Don't be fooled: even if the input to the bastardized process is organic, the output is ersatz.

But after 50 years, most consumers have come to believe that the impostor is the real thing. The FDA and state departments of agriculture have acquiesced in this nonsense. My sons have never tasted true buttermilk, and they can't imagine how someone could be delighted by a meal of nothing but cornbread and buttermilk.

I regret to report that after quite a bit of Googling, I found only one dairy that produces true buttermilk. It's in Maine and the product is not distributed outside New England, as far as I can tell. If anyone knows of a source of true buttermilk in the South, please tell me. I will gladly drive a few hundred miles one weekend to revisit my youth.

Someday I will blog about syrup, another touchy point for me.