Cucumber, possibly chocolate, and most, but by no means all, fresh fruit. That’s a comprehensive list of foodstuffs that are not improved by the addition of butter.
Butter itself isn’t quite a foodstuff. At the same time you wouldn’t classify it as an additive, nor yet as a condiment, nor even a relish. And I refuse to insult it with that name beloved of advertising agencies, a spread. In short, there is no class of foodstuff to which butter belongs, because butter is sui generis. It’s a club with only one member.
However hard it is to define what butter is, it is even harder to define how it tastes. Butter transcends taste. It is more a savour and a silky texture than a flavour - but I am floundering. Let us just settle on its being a good thing.
Like most good things it is simple. Just agitate some cream until the fat coagulates. Add salt to taste - or not if you are French - and you have butter. That is how it was a thousand years ago and how it is today.
And again like most good things, it has imitators. Margarine makers have been at it for 150 years. They have hired learned chemists. They have spent millions of dollars. They have made imitation butter out of beef fat, out of vegetable oil, and even - I am not making this up - out of coal. It took 60 kilos of coal to make a kilo of ‘coal butter’.
Time and again the chemists have claimed their latest product is indistinguishable from the real thing, but the boast is always an admission of failure. Butter is the pinnacle they are trying to climb, and they have never got past base camp.
The buttercup is a spring flower. The butterfly is the only insect everybody loves. To butter someone up is to tell them what they like to hear. The connotations of butter are like the taste of butter - a pleasure.
And so butter has enemies. Pleasure always has enemies. Those enemies are Puritans. Shakespeare hated Puritans. They closed down theatres, forbade pleasures. ‘Dost thou think,’ said Shakespeare’s Toby Belch, a drunkard, ‘because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ But it was H.L. Mencken who put it best. He defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that somebody somewhere may be happy’.
The modern day Puritans are desperate to interfere with our diets by banning this, and taxing that. Their ostensible purpose is to make us all so fit and scrawny that we die of boredom at 120. But it doesn’t truly matter to them how long we live.
What matters is the exercise of power, denying us pleasure through moral condemnation. And top of their hit list is butter.
Their argument runs thus: butter is fat. Eating fat makes us fat. Being fat kills us. So butter is a sin against our duty to live as long as possible. Ergo we should eschew it. But their argument is false. I know so.
I smoked for 40 years. Smoking keeps you skinny. It suppresses the appetite. And a cigarette makes an ideal dessert. I used to bolt my meals so as to get back to smoking.
But then, some 10 years ago, I gave it up because the Puritans had made it too expensive. As soon as I stopped smoking I started eating more and I got fat. I put on over 20kg.
Then, some three years ago, in conversation with a former pupil, I bemoaned the fact that I now struggled to cut my own toenails. He suggested I go on a diet.
‘Ha,’ I exclaimed, ‘never in a thousand years. All diets are mad and sad. I prefer to be fat than deny myself such joys as butter.’
And he fell about laughing. There was no need, he declared, to deny myself such joys as butter. He had himself grown chubby a few years back but then had shed the lot by going on a diet that positively encouraged butter.
‘I’m listening,’ I said.
He outlined a diet that was roughly two-thirds fat, a quarter protein and no more than a smidgen of carbohydrates. So bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and sugar were out. Meat, fish, veges, cream and butter were in. Emphatically. I lost the 20 kilos in nine months. Fat doesn’t make you fat. Butter is good. But you don’t need me to tell you. You have only to taste it. Fie to the Puritans.