Yahoo Food is proud to present a new weeklong series called “Master Class.” Throughout the year, we’ll visit with some of America’s top culinary talents and share a behind-the-scenes look at the worlds they’ve created. First up, the country’s most revered chef, Thomas Keller. Here, Yahoo Food talks with Diane St. Clair, the small-batch butter maker whose hand-written note to Keller in 2000 landed her product in some of the best restaurants in the country.
Diane St. Clair poses with one of her Jersey cows. All photos courtesy of Animal Farm.
From her bedroom window, Diane St. Clair can keep tabs on her chestnut-hued herd of 10 Jersey cows, which in warmer months nibble on the grassy fields of her 34-acre property, Animal Farm. Thirty-four acres might sound like a lot to city-dwellers, but it isn’t for open field-loving dairy cows, nor the humble handmade butter company that St. Clair founded in 1999.
The farm’s name is a reference to the author George Orwell, of sorts: Animal Farm finds its home in bucolic Orwell, Vt., a town that famously banned “modern farm machinery of all kinds” in the late 1800s. Though the law hasn’t been enforced in more than a century, it makes Orwell an approprate setting for St. Clair’s old-fashioned operation, which recalls a time when farmers churned their own butter with fresh milk that had been allowed to ferment overnight beside a wood-burning stove. St. Clair makes hers nearly identically — minus the stove.
A hearty slathering of St. Clair’s rich butter.
“It’s definitely got a more tangy flavor than butter made with fresh cream,” St. Clair told Yahoo Food. That flavor also changes with the seasons, influenced by what her cows are eating at any given moment: In warmer months, grass gives the butter a floral and herbaceous character. In the winter, a diet of dry hay ups the butterfat content in the cow’s milk, resulting in a richer taste.
“It’s a whole different thing from mass-produced dairy products that taste the same 12 months out of a year,” she said.
Though Animal Farm is tiny by commercial dairy standards, it’s certainly mighty. In 2000, St. Clair caught the attention of Chef Thomas Keller, catapulting her enterprise. “I hand-wrote him this note saying, ‘Hi! I’m this little butter maker. I wonder if you would try my butter and give me your opinion on it,’” she recalled. Keller agreed, and St. Clair quickly shipped a box of her finest out to Keller’s Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry.
“The next day, he called me and said, ‘Wow, this is the best butter I’ve ever had. Just send me everything you make.’”
Animal Farm at sunset.
St. Clair is an unlikely star in the butter world. A Baltimore native born to an interior designer mother and lawyer father, she longed to escape her urban environs for a life in the country. A love of horses led to weekend trips out to a dairy in nearby Westminster, Md., which had horses on the property. “I spent so much time there that they were like, ‘Do you want to spend the summer here?’” St. Clair recollected. “I caught the farming bug. I probably wouldn’t be a farmer now if I hadn’t had that experience as a teenager.”
Before the Keller connection, St. Clair managed an output of about 20 pounds a week with two cows. These days — thanks to greater demand and a larger herd — she churns out five times that amount. The butter now graces the tables of Keller’s restaurants, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and New York City’s Per Se; The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia; and No. 9 Park and Menton in Boston. A handful of small vendors also sell St. Clair’s products sporadically, including Saxelby Cheesemongers, where a two-pound package will set you back $65.
It’s a small, but selective group. St. Clair once had to turn down an offer to supply butter to Alinea, the Chicago temple of molecular gastronomy run by Chef Grant Achatz. “I didn’t have enough butter!” St. Clair lamented. Still, she admits it’s a good problem to have. “I feel particularly lucky,” she said.
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