ORWELL, Vt. — The land rises and falls gently here at the western edge of a small state once known primarily for its taciturn men and their tidy herds of Jersey cows. Perhaps Vermonters had little to say because the milk they produced — so rich in fat and milk solids — did the talking for them.
Today, Vermont’s dairy industry is contracting, but its reputation as a source of gem-quality milk has never been higher. While most of this comeback can be traced to a boom in artisan cheese making, there’s more to milk than curds and whey. Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm makes some of the finest butter anywhere — that according to two top restaurants that insist on serving hers, and no one else’s. She also produces authentic buttermilk, a natural byproduct of butter-making, expected to be in some specialty shops in the Boston area this month.
Celebrity chef Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in Manhattan are high on the list of foodie dream destinations, has been serving Animal Farm butter since 2000, when he received a letter from St. Clair suggesting he might be interested in the output of her then two-cow herd. Keller requested a 5-pound sample, then swiftly placed a standing order that St. Clair has been filling ever since. The farmer’s local butter customer is No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill, where it has been served for about a decade. Chef de cuisine Scott Jones likes its farmy character. “When you eat this you think, you know, this tastes like it came from a cow. And the color is gorgeous.”
Indeed, set beside some high-quality commercial butter, the Animal Farm version, which St. Clair sends to each chef in balls rather than sticks, is startlingly bright yellow.
St. Clair makes cultured butter, meaning that the cream is first inoculated with micro-organisms that convert the sugars in the milk to lactic acid, then it’s churned. Culturing gives butter a pleasing tang (most butters in the US are “sweet cream,” meaning no cultures are added).
The Animal Farm butter costs the restaurants $18 a pound (available from September to June); Keller, Lynch, and Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., buy 100 percent of it, but St. Clair also makes buttermilk from her 10-cow herd on 30 acres.
Last summer, she published “The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook,” a meditation on the glories of authentic buttermilk, with recipes. Real buttermilk is the watery part of the cream that remains in the churn, once the fats have separated, then clumped together. St. Clair’s product is richer than commercial versions, which are typically made by adding a culture to skim milk; hers may have two to three times the butterfat content of the others.
St. Clair, 57, is a practical farmer. “I was organic when I started with two or three cows,” she says. “But then I had a cow that got sick and nothing would bring her around except antibiotics. Under organic protocols, you can use antibiotics, but then you have to get rid of the cow. I didn’t certify again. When I informed chef Keller, he said, ‘You’re the farmer. You don’t tell me how to cook a tomato, I don’t tell you how to manage your herd.’ ”
Raised in Baltimore, St. Clair has links to rural life that were forged in her Austrian grandparents’ Catskills cabin, where she spent summers. In 1986 she abandoned a career in public health in New York City and relocated to Vermont with her then-husband, a journalist, and their two small children. The couple purchased the farm in 1999 and St. Clair thought it might be a good idea to get a cow to provide milk for the family. She discovered that cows were different from the horses she had grown up riding. “With cows you have to become involved with reproduction,” she says. As we chat, a pair of 2-week-old bull calves frolic in their clean, roomy pen. Her husband, large animal veterinarian Alan Clarisse (he was her veterinarian before he was her husband), looks on.
St. Clair began to really think of herself as a farmer when she got her second cow. Making and selling butter as a way to generate revenue seemed to make sense, since she would have had to maintain a much bigger herd to make a living selling milk. To comply with strict dairy regulations, she and a neighbor fabricated a crude pasteurization kit. It was all very make-do, “nothing more than a stockpot with a lid and three holes in the top you could stick thermometers into,” St. Clair recalls. “The heat came from a two-burner hot plate. A hose connected to the spout of a simmering teakettle heated the airspace above the milk, as required. She processed 3 to 4 gallons at a time. Continued...