This morning, on my kitchen counter, I found leftover béarnaise sauce congealed in a bowl. I served it last night, piping hot and unctuous, spooned over rib eye steak. Very French. Or maybe not. I did not have tarragon in my larder: I buy it dehydrated and keep it in my fridge; it’s sometimes hard to find fresh. And I don’t have any in my fledgling vegetable and herb garden yet. I had already started boiling the shallots in the white wine and vinegar when I realised this. I decided to go ahead and make the sauce. But it needed some flavouring. So I tried vanilla extract. It worked wonderfully, the vanilla seeds giving the sauce an interesting texture as it glistened on the seared steak, the taste unexpectedly right. I will make it again.
This morning however, it does not look all that appetising: all that butter has cooled off and hardened, reminding me why I don’t make a béarnaise sauce more often. Butter, red meat, cream in the mashed cauliflower which I served alongside the steak: a very indulgent meal. The kind of ingredients a previous generation used a lot of. The kind that all those health conscious articles warn grimly about. The kind I simply cannot cook without.
My mother already eschewed butter in the sixties. I am not sure if it had anything to do with the price difference between butter and margarine, or if she already had been swayed by stories about how unhealthy it is. I always hated the taste of margarine: I still do. Yet as a very young wife and mother, I used margarine too. Until I became Someone Who Loves Cooking.
And this morning, writing “butter” on the blackboard where I write my grocery list on, I remembered how my maternal grandmother churned her own. I’m not sure where she got her milk from. I seem to vaguely remember real milk cans, clicked open from being latched, and thick yellow cream scooped out from the top, to go into the butter churn. I do not exactly remember what her butter churn looked like. I know that she turned a handle attached to a paddle of sorts. Now when I googled “butter churner” images to refresh my memory, a sexual position came up! It made me smile, and remember again how closely connected sexuality and food and eating are. And of course butter is notoriously associated with a certain Last Tango. But let’s get back to my grandmother’s churning. I remember how the butter from the churn glistened with drops of milky water. And how she then used to salt it, before pressing it into her glass butter dish. And how that same butter melted and oozed into freshly baked white bread, the crust of which was much coveted, and which I sometimes got to have, by asking first.
So, yes, butter is on my grocery list. Unsalted, of course. When I started using butter I knew I was serious about food and cooking. When I stopped buying salted butter though, I started to regard myself as an epicurean . A little smug, maybe. But butter it has to be, I’m afraid. When I see margarine in someone’s fridge, I know that either they have bought into the health hype around butter, or that they simply do not like food. Or cooking. Or both.