Butter, one of my best-loved foods, has become de rigueur dinner table conversation — which, for a complete butterholic, is wonderful. Sadly, though, the conversation is beginning because of its price.
It’s a global boom-and-bust issue. In Europe, issues such as stockpiles of milk powder and Russia’s embargo on imported European-produced dairy foods led, some years back, to a downturn in dairy production. Now the tables have turned.
Britain is under the influence of the Mary Berry effect (their words, not mine) and a new generation has taken to baking — but only with butter. In addition, there’s a worldwide trend away from margarines and table spreads to natural, including whole milk over low-fat milks. All that’s great, except there’s not enough base product: milk.
The Brits suffered a 53 per cent increase in the price of butter in the last 12 months. Their French cousins are no better off; this year alone, the price of butter has increased by 93 per cent. Sacre beurre!
Demand for milk fat in Europe has caused the world price of butter to increase 60 per cent in the year to October (data from the ABC). We trade on a world market and thus we feel it too — our butter has hiked up 62 per cent in a year. Like you, I think it’s unfair.
In a country where 95 per cent of our dairy production is exported (37 per cent whole milk powder, 12 per cent cheese, 10 per cent skim milk powder and nine per cent butter), wouldn’t it be nice if we had a quota system of “dairy for Kiwis first”?
I don’t want to take any well-earned good times away from the farmers — heaven knows many of them need good times — but truly, given how much we export, how little would it take to make “natural” more affordable on our market?
On top of all the economic issues, the burgeoning worldwide trend back to natural has also had an impact on the price of dairy, just in time for Christmas, when many make the effort to recreate memories of yesteryear through traditional baking.
I encourage you this year to bypass the classics we so strongly associate with Christmas and that are usually British-based. Go back to a true Kiwi classic — the sponge or sponge drops (small versions are perfect for kids). The sponge requires little effort to make, can be made with a hand beater, and is mainly eggs, a bit of sugar, flour, mountains of air and maybe a spoonful of butter. It can be made on the day of eating or a few days before and can be layered with whipped cream and fruit just before serving.
There are many variations to a basic sponge recipe – more eggs, no butter, eggs whipped together or separately – and all result in a different texture. Firm-textures are ideal for lamington or where there’s a time delay from filling to eating. Softer, crumblier textures are best filled and eaten quickly. I tend to cook what I feel like on the day.