Every year the Australian Grand Dairy Awards celebrates excellence in all manner of dairy delights. Along with a myriad of cheese, milk, cream, ice-cream and yoghurt categories to consider, judges are tasked with crowing the very best of a humble household staple: butter.

The event raises a whole host of questions, foremost among them: how exactly does one judge a good butter? Thankfully, butter aficionado and executive head chef at Melbourne institution Vue de Monde Hugh Allen is here to answer our questions. He says that once you’ve tasted enough butter, the difference between a decent and a poor quality one just jumps out at you: “Taste and flavour is the greatest difference in good and bad quality butter. [They’re] not comparable.”

The texture also matters: “Texture comes down to fat content, mostly. It depends on the fat content of the cream [used] to start, but also on whether all the butter milk has been squeezed out during the manufacturing process.”

The cream, he explains, is crucial: first and foremost, a good butter starts with a good cream, and trying to make a good butter from average cream is like trying to make the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear. “Low quality butter is made with low quality cream. For the best quality butter, you must start with the best cream you can get your hands on,” he says. (At Vue de Monde, the cream comes from a local supplier: “We use cream from Schulz Organic Dairy. It has a great flavour, and it’s local to us – they’re based in Timboon.”)

Vue de Monde is noted for many things, but as far as dairy goes, its cultured butter is the business. You may well have seen cultured butter on the shelves of your local supermarket, too; so what is it, exactly? The name, Allen explains, doesn’t imply that the butter is into opera and/or has an MTC subscription; instead, it means the cream from which the butter was made had a live bacteria added to it before it was processed into butter. “Cultured butter has had a culture added to it and then been allowed to age [in order to] develop acidic and cheesy notes. For ‘normal’ butter, this process is skipped and the cream is churned fresh.”

If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the restaurant and wondered exactly how they make this golden goodness, Allen is happy to share the secret of what’s a pretty involved process. “We [start by] treating our cream with a culture,” he says. “This is allowed to ferment for two to three weeks. During this time, a mould will grow. [Once the fermentation is done], we remove that layer of mould.”

At this point, he explains, “You have cultured cream, or crème fraîche.” This could be served on its own, but to make butter, the next step is to churn the cream. “[As it’s churned], the butter fat splits from the buttermilk. You squeeze the butter and then massage salt into it. From there, it’s aged for a further two weeks. The result is a fuller flavour with noticeable acidity and slight cheesy characteristics.”

One of the things you’ll notice about cultured butter is that, compared to plain old uncultured butter, it offers a greater variety of flavours. Manufacturing with cultures, Allen says, allows for more experimentation in the development of taste profiles. “There are probably hundreds of different cultures and bacteria strains that are yet to be discovered, and all [those] cultures have and give unique flavours to the butter. So there’s plenty of space for innovation.”

The ultimate test for a butter, though, remains the simplest. So, what’s cultured butter like on toast? Allen laughs, “That’s the best way to have it! On your morning toast.”

This article was produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Dairy Australia. You can discover the winners of the 2020 Australian Grand Dairy Awards here.