ORWELL, Vt., June 1, 2006 -- This tiny corner of northern Vermont has attracted the attention of celebrated big city chefs and foodies from thousands of miles away because of something they consider the best of its kind in the United States -- butter.
Diane St. Clair and her tiny herd of gentle Jersey cows produce the butter on a small farm in the shadow of the Green Mountains. And it is like none that can be found in a supermarket.
In a misty dawn, punctuated by the crows of a just wakened rooster, St. Clair leads one of her cows, its full udder nearly scraping the ground, to the barn where she milks all the cows twice a day, seven days a week. It is a tough life for St. Clair. But it's not work, it's a passion.
"What I love about it is that it's a fragile product," says St. Clair, a slim, bright-eyed woman with long, curly red hair. "The butter that people are eating reflects what's going on in my field right now."
Today the cows graze on spring grass. That means the butter will be bright yellow.
St. Clair's butter-making technique comes from a 19th-century model, not some new, highly efficient agricultural development. While commercial producers make thousands of pounds at a time by machine, she makes 60 pounds a week by hand -- the 19th-century way.
But St. Clair does not shun modern equipment. "The essence of it is the same," she says, which means hand separating the cream and milk. " My cows are eating grass, they're outside and I churn and I hand wash," to get rid of the excess milk. "It is very similar."
St. Clair's operation is organic. She doesn't use feed additives or antibiotics for the cows, nor does she rely on drugs to increase milk production. Each cow produces 55 gallons a week, topped with rich, ivory-colored cream.
In the milk room of her modest white farm house, St. Clair cultures the cream with buttermilk for a day and then churns it. What comes out this day is not only bright yellow but aromatic.
As she scoops it into baseball-size chunks, she says with glowing pride, "This is a product you're never going to see in the supermarket."
Not even renowned French butter can match it.
The butter she and her cows -- Petra, Dyedee, Scooter, Lightning, Pansy and Lulu -- produce is almost 88 percent butter fat. Supermarket butter, in contrast, is just 80 percent butter fat. One taste of St. Clair's and you'll never forget it.
"I think it's just that fat on your tongue," says St. Clair. "Somebody said to me once that my butter tastes the way it looks. And if you see it with that wonderful yellow creaminess, there's a way you think that should taste. And that's how it tastes."
A city girl from Baltimore, St. Clair's fondest childhood memories were of teenage summers spent on a relative's farm. After a career in public health, she took up butter making. Using the 21st-century Internet, she found long out-of-print 19th- and early-20th-century books about making butter on small family farms.
"I think the fact that I make it in small batches makes it different," she says. "It's like anything made in small batches. It gets a lot of attention."
And attention St. Clair's butter gets. She sells almost her entire weekly production to chefs Ali Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot of the Keyah Grande resort hotel in Colorado, and to Thomas Keller, whose empire includes the French Laundry in California, Bouchon in Las Vegas and Per Se in New York.
As he opens a recent shipment at Per Se, Keller says, "Immediately, when you open the bag, this aroma of fresh butter just envelops you."
Keller complains that so much food is the same these days that it has produced "palate fatigue."
"Diane St. Clair is an extraordinary person who has a true desire to produce a product that has no parallel," he says.
Keller, standing in Per Se's sparkling tile-and-stainless-steel kitchen, says he loves the way St. Clair's butter changes with the seasons, both in color and flavor, to reflect what the cows are eating.
"We look for consistency in our society," he says. "But you know what? That evolution of the year is something that I really cherish."
In that regard, St. Clair and Keller are soul mates.
"Food has been channeled to be like a factory," she declares. "And that's how it stays cheap. If you want cheap food, that's what you're going to get."
St. Clair's butter costs $15.00 a pound. But it's still harder to get than a reservation at one of Keller's restaurants, where dinner for four can easily cost $1,000. People who have tasted St. Clair's butter at Per Se or the French Laundry have shown up at her farm to get butter, or just to photograph her cows. Others deluge her with e-mails and phone calls begging her for butter.
"I don't keep a waiting list," she says. "I really have to very politely say no -- except for certain individuals who just strike a chord with me."
One of those got some butter several months ago, a Wisconsin woman who pleaded she wanted to taste butter like her grandmother's again, just once before she died.
St. Clair did recently increase production by 18 percent, when she added Lulu. But she wants to remain small to control quality and ensure the uniqueness of her product.
"When I send butter to Thomas Keller, he knows that I oversaw it every step of the way from milking my cows to putting it in a box."
She adds that her cows are like members of her family, just as they always were on small family farms, each with a name and a recognizable personality.
As the six cows graze lazily in the small pasture newly green with spring grass, she's asked if small makes better butter.
"It is definitely better butter," she says, "from happy cows."
Writer's note: With tongue placed firmly in cheek, Diane St. Clair named her farm in Orwell, Vt., Animal Farm. Orwell, Vt., however, was founded almost 200 years before George Orwell wrote "Animal Farm." There seems little chance Diane St. Clair's cows will ever revolt.