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The butter dilemma

Bread and butter is wonderful. Good bread such as ciabatta, served warm, with a quality slightly-salted butter such as Lurpak - or better still a butter from Normandy - is irresistible. Unfortunately itís also very fattening and pumps up your cholesterol level dramatically.

Well, some peopleís cholersterol. At the age of 65, I had my first cholesterol test (following a nice low blood-pressure one) and scored 4.5 (anything under 5.2 is ínormalí). Considering my gastronomic history, I can consider myself very very lucky. And, presumably, go on eating fat with gay abandon until my cigar-smoking or something else ambushes me.

When Iím in France, because they donít serve butter as a matter of course, I find that I donít miss it. Then I come home, and I still donít bother with butter. But after a week or so the old habits start to creep back and Iím soon dolloping the butter on, even with a cheese as buttery as Roquefort or St Agur. Is it surprising that the British have such appalling levels of fat-related disease?

The French have a much more sensible attitude to this wonderful derivative of milk. They serve it when and where its characteristics seem appropriate. Thus, readers of Peter Mayleís A Year in Provence may recall an account of a lunch at which butter was served with sauÁisson. Given that sauÁisson contains a lot of fat, this seems to our in-a-rut closed British minds to be a pretty daft thing to do. But think about it. The sauÁisson is cured with salt - lots of it - which gives it the same sort of bite as you get with strong cheeses like mature cheddars. That tender spot just behind your front teeth, where your palate becomes your gum, seems particularly prone to being burnt by either of these corrosive foods, and butter is the perfect antidote - cool and soft and soothing (after all, it is a traditional dressing for real burns).

Incidentally, butter is not a pure fat. It contains about 18% of water, and - like mayonnaise - itís an emulsion. However, because the fat is the major ingredient and the water the minor one, the rŰles are reversed: in butter itís droplets of water that are dispersed in the fat. At 80% fat, though - and much of it saturated - this delicious emulsion should be treated with considerable caution.

As a footnote, we recently discovered a new and wonderful butter in Normandy. Itís butter from Isigny, where the best crŤme fraÓche comes from, with coarse, crunchy crystals of Sel de Guťrande mixed into it instead of salt being dissolved in the 18% of water. Butters like this are available in ordinary small-town supermarkets in Normandy.

The margarine dilemma

Now, early in 2008, I have a terrible confession to make. For the past couple of years weíve been using Utterly Butterly as an everyday spread. Patricia has major problems with cholesterol, and we discovered that of all the butter-substitutes this seemed the healthiest. After a period of acclimatisation, I have to admit that I like the stuff!

This spread doesn?t contain anything too disgusting: vegetable oils; water; reconstituted buttermilk;salt; an emulsifier (E471) made from glycerin; soya lecithin, a natural emulsifier; potassium sorbate (a preservative); lactic acid (as found in milk, yogurt and cheese); natural beta carotene for colour; vitamins A and D; and ?flavouring?, unspecified and therefore hopefully harmless. Considering the junk you find in much processed food, this could be a lot worse!

Nutritionally, 100 grams has 534 kilocalories against 737 in butter. There?s 0.3g of protein against 0.5 in butter, and half a gram of carbohydrate (as sugars) against a trace in butter.On the fat front, it has a total of 59 grams against butter?s 81.7: 14.7 grams of saturates against 54; 28.8 of mono-unsaturates against 19.8; and 12.8 of poly-unsaturates against 2.8. And I suspect that I?m not tempted to slap it on quite as generously as I do butter. (Interesting that butter has so much mono-unsaturates...)

Having got used to Utterly Butterly, I do find good butter a real treat when I eat it.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.