Most of us go on holiday for a break. Nick Sinclair is not like most of us. When in Australia with his wife Hilary, he spotted a van advertising the company wares, artisanal butter. Becoming a big thing in Oz, his friends told him. So on their return to Scotland, the two of them started making butter in their kitchen, and serving it at the supper clubs which they ran.
I'm not sure if there's a butter bug which can bite you, but they were driven to do more experimentation, and get the taste they were looking for. This is an interview I've been meaning to do for some years, having been blown away by the their product when I first sampled it. Nick is delighted when I say it tastes like top quality French butter - that's precisely what they're aiming at.
As production upscaled it moved from their kitchen to the below street cellars in sister-in-law Chloe's New Town flat. (Chloe is also a director of the company, and is described on their website as Chief Croissant Taster.) They were making 150g sticks of salted butter which were being stocked by a deli in Stockbridge. That led to their first big break. One deli customer was a chef at The Balmoral, which led to a meeting with the legendary Jeff Bland, at that time the Executive Chef. There was a potential order for 100 kilos a week. The only trouble was that that was significantly more than they were producing. Despite that, the relationship started and continues to this day.
An industrial unit in the west of Edinburgh followed. I meet Nick at his new premises in Uphall, just outside the city. He describes the first few months there as the worst of his life. A shell of a building was transformed with a fit out costing nearly quarter of a million. Despite requests, no help was forthcoming from either Business Gateway or Scottish Enterprise. Production is now around 2000 kilos per week, with a total of 9 people employed in the business, including the directors.
Now, how hard can it be to make butter? I know a few of you out there who do. Beat the cream, strain off the buttermilk, and add salt if you fancy. Well, that's why your butter isn't a patch on Nick's. I've often heard the term cultured butter, but I'm not sure I ever knew what it meant. Here, bacteria are added to the cream to make huge vats of crème fraîche. The bacteria consumes the lactose, meaning that Edinburgh Butter can be eaten by those who are lactose intolerant. The mixture is then heated to a certain point for a certain time, then chilled for a certain time, before being churned to make butter.
All of that came after a long period of experimentation. So they've cracked it? Well, if only it were that simple. Cream varies according to the seasons, and adjustments have to be made. Another tweak was to adapt the butter for the target market. About 85% of production is sold in 1kg unsalted sheets to bakeries. They use it for laminated dough for croissants, pastries and the like. Most artisan bakers don't have air conditioned premises, making working with butter tricky in the summer months. Using a top secret technique, Nick has been able to adapt the melting point. I could tell you what it is but (a) Nick would shoot me, and (b) I really didn't understand it.
The next few years will see production increase at least five fold. There are plans for new products. Like all good entrepreneurs, our man is brimming with ideas, but he's not ready to share them just yet. What is certain is that here in Edinburgh we have a product which can rival anything France has to offer. Across the Channel, of course, they notice these things rather more than we do, and know that there is butter and there is good butter. Nick draws an analogy with olive oil. A decade or so ago no one here paid much attention to what they were using. Now, top of the range Extra Virgin Olive Oil is rightly prized. A good meal, he says, will begin with bread and butter. Artisan bakers (and indeed many home bakers) are producing fantastic stuff - why not spread it with butter of equal quality? Amen to that.
You can find out more about the company on their website.
If you want to try their butter for yourself (and you really, really should) current stockists include 181 Deli, Bruntsfield; Margiotta (most branches); Hobz Bakery, Leith Walk; Valvona & Crolla, Elm Row; Beach House Bakery, Portobello; and Craigies Farm Shop, near South Queensferry.