Thursday, October 05, 2006

Butter Feast

I've been to lots of artisan cheese tastings over the years, but Tuesday night was the first time I ever had a dinner revolving around artisanal butters.

Harvest Restaurant in downtown Madison hosted an amazing "butter dinner" to coincide with World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis. With more than 15,000 people in town for that event, I guess a dinner based on butter makes sense.

Owner Tami Lax and Chef Justin Carlisle prepared a special 4-course meal for about 30 registered guests and started with warm rolls and four different butters to taste. My favorite was Mt Sterling Cheese Cooperative's goat butter. I found out during dinner that the butter is made by cheesemaker Al Bekkum and is literally churned by hand in micro-batches. Mt. Sterling is currently trying to decide on how to package and sell the product - my vote would be to handpack it in an attractive circular container showing off its true artisanal qualities.

After plowing through three baskets of dinner rolls and four different mounds of butter, my table realized we still had three more courses to eat. So we took a breather, finished off our glasses of wine and prepared for the next round of butter-laced cuisine, which was of course king crab. While that dish - served with white corn grits and sprouts was truly impressive, the next course was my favorite: braised short ribs with collard greens. We found out later from Chef Justin that he had cooked the meat at 215 degrees for 6 hours using an entire 40 pound block - yes, 40 pounds of butter - that Westby Creamery had sent him for the dinner. Creamery Manager Pete Kondrup was in attendance and offered to send more next time. Yikes.

With that news and the feeling of my arteries hardening, I of course then completely finished off my huge piece of buttercream cake crafted with butter courtesy of Pine River Dairy near Manitowoc. Buttermaker Shari Riesterer was in attendance and described how her family has crafted butter for 60 years, also in small batches. They make spiced and European style butters as well. Who knew this stuff was being made in Wisconsin?

When it was time to go home, many of us marveled at the fact that while Wisconsin is world-renowned for its cheese, not much is really know about our buttermakers. Hopefully, with more events like Harvest's butter dinner, that will change. Mmmm...butter.