By Andrea Gunner
Good quality croissants, warm from the oven, flaky and crisp on the outside, stretchy and elastic on the inside, are one of my favourite treats. Living in rural BC, this treat was not very accessible, certainly not to Paris boulangerie standards, until I learned to make them myself. I usually make a batch of croissants and pains au chocolat a few times a year, to share with family, friends and neighbours. I import special “batons” of Valrhona chocolate for the filling. On my infrequent trips to France, I buy butter at the cheese shops since they package it in labelled “fromage” paper, making it much easier to smuggle into Canada. Oh yes, one of the realities of a supply managed Canadian dairy industry is import restrictions on dairy products.
Why am I willing to smuggle French butter? The difference in taste! Unfortunately, I did not buy enough butter on my last trip to Europe and have been using only Canadian butter for my French pastry baking since 2018. For some reason, none of these various batches have turned out properly. I’ve been so disappointed with the results (hard little lumps with pools of butter spreading out from each one across the baking sheet), that the dogs have been the recipients on more than one occasion – sacre bleu, quel horreur! I had just about given up until I read this article: Buttergate: The Hard Truth About Canadian Butter.
Like many Canadians, I had noticed that our butter wasn’t softening at room temperature. After reading the Canadian Grocer and similar articles and talking to a dairy farming friend, I bought two packages of butter from grass fed cows, one Organic Meadow ($13.99, Ontario) and one L’Ancetre ($11.99, Quebec). I left them on the counter along with a package of Meadowvale butter. After a few hours, the grass fed butter was much softer than the Meadowvale butter. Much softer! I refrigerated the butter and proceeded to make a batch of French pastries et voila! Perfect! Flaky, puffy, elastic and delicious, just as they should be.
Changes in consumer behaviour, such as the surge in home baking during the early months of the pandemic, can result in supply disruptions because the production system cannot react as quickly as the market can change. For instance, the trend in recent years has been to reduce fats in our diets. For dairy farmers, this means they need to manage their herds to reduce the fat levels in the milk they ship to the processors. Reducing the size of the herd while increasing the amount of milk they take from each cow results in shipping lower fat content milk, meeting the quota on volume and fat content.
However, when the market demand shifts abruptly, there is a market information time lag between retail grocery, processor, dairy association to individual dairy farmer. In order for the individual dairy farmer to react to this market shift, the farmer must have confidence in the new direction since it takes about 2 years to bring a young heifer into a milk producing adult dairy cow. The use of palmitic acid is a quick and cost effective feed additive, increasing production volumes and has been used in Canada for several years. Commercially available palmitic acid is derived from the palm oil industry, an industry with well documented ecological and humanitarian issues for over 20 years. This does not sit particularly well alongside the Blue Cow marketing campaign that proclaims values of sustainability and purity as well as local and natural.
Canadians have placed a great deal of trust and support in our supply management systems. We trust that the systems are set up in such a way as to protect our food supply while protecting our farmers from cyclic and catastrophic market shifts and ensuring that farmers get a reasonable return. As a self-regulating industry, dairy farmers, arguably the most powerful lobby group in Canada, have a social contract with consumers.
As a result of the public outcry over “Buttergate”, the Dairy Farmers of Canada have established a working group to investigate palm oil as well as other dairy industry standards. This is a step in the right direction but I am concerned that it took national and international media attention before a working group was struck. Shouldn’t this have been an integral part of such a protected and supported industry? And why is it that higher quality Canadian butter is not only so hard to find but 2-3 times the price? My hope is that the dairy industry will investigate thoughtfully and adapt with integrity and transparency. We deserve no less from our beloved dairy farmers. Until then, I’ll dream of Paris but pay the high price for butter from grass-fed Canadian cows.