Sort-of Secret: St. Brigid’s Creamery, the Ontario-made gourmet butter Emerald Grasslands fans need to know about
The sort-of secret: St. Brigid’s Creamery, a remarkably creamy line of butter made with milk from a family-run dairy in Huron County
You may have heard of it if: You were a fan of Emerald Grasslands, the erstwhile cult-favourite brand of shockingly golden butter blocks that became a mainstay of Toronto gourmet shops in the before times
But you probably haven’t tried it because: You’re still looking for the Emerald Grasslands label, which no longer exists
We don’t really talk much about butter—unless we’re complaining about it, like in the early days of the pandemic (remember Buttergate?), when we all decided our butter was too hard. Or when TikTok whips up a phenomenon like butter boards, and we all start smearing the stuff across our cutting boards as if we should have been doing it this way all along. But, even then, it’s more about the toppings and the aesthetic of the finished board than the butter itself.
The rest of the time, butter is just butter—a kitchen commodity that needs to competently play its part on a piece of toast or in a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
This is a tragedy, because anyone who has ever smeared a premium, high-fat butter on a hunk of sourdough knows that good butter is a revelation. Think about how supremely eggy a free-range egg tastes (and looks) compared to its industrial counterpart. It’s the same with top-shelf butter: once you try the good stuff, it’s impossible to go back. But, to get it, you often have to shell out for a tiny block of something imported from France or New Zealand or Ireland—locales that reliably outdo domestic butters for reasons ranging from climate to bacteria (the good kind) to bureaucracy.
But local perceptions of butter began to change around 2018, when an Ontario upstart called Emerald Grasslands harnessed the power of eye-popping foodstuffs on social media. Slabs of their practically glowing product—the same cartoonish shade of yellow that Big Butter would have us believe comes naturally to all butters—started appearing on food-focused social media feeds and the menus of influential kitchens like Buca and Momofuku Kōjin. Even a powerhouse like Eataly was featuring it by name in plates of its tajarin pasta. Chefs were highlighting it in their recipes and using words like “luxurious” to describe it. And its near-mythical properties were derived from the organic, grass-fed milk of dairy cows grazing in southwestern Ontario.
But the butter business is a tough one, especially in a dairy market that’s as tightly regulated as Ontario’s, and not even a pandemic-fuelled, population-wide baking-and-snacking binge could save Emerald Grasslands, which filed for bankruptcy in 2022.
Left standing amid the buttery rubble was dairy farmer Bill van Nes, whose St. Brigid’s Dairy had been supplying Emerald Grasslands with most of the milk that went on to become the brand’s butter. So he did what any butter-loving farmer with 270-plus active dairy cows would do: he launched his own butter business, called St. Brigid’s Creamery, this June.
The cows of St. Brigid’s are no ordinary dairy cows. They’re A2 Jerseys, which are smaller and give about a third less milk than the ubiquitous Holstein cow—at more than 90 per cent of the Ontario dairy herd, Holsteins are likely what your mind sees when it hears the words “dairy cows.” But Jersey milk is much higher in fat than Holstein milk. And, at van Nes’s farm, the milk is packed with beta carotene from the regenerative pasture the animals spend much of the year munching on. A2 Jersey milk proteins are structurally unique, and the milk may even be more digestible for people with dairy intolerances. The proteins also cause the butter to behave differently—and mysteriously so.
“You take this butter and you melt it in a pan beside any other butter, you’re going to notice a difference in how it separates,” says van Nes. “We don’t know how to explain that yet, but there is a difference.”
Van Nes was one of three producers supplying Jersey milk for Emerald Grasslands, but his herd is the sole source of milk for St. Brigid’s Creamery, which gives him even greater control over the final product. “To me, the colour is even better,” he says of St. Brigid’s batches, and it’s hard to argue.
But getting the milk from the Jerseys is only the first step. Each week, van Nes ships a truckload of milk to a separator facility, where it’s pasteurized and spun through a centrifuge to separate the milk from the cream. It’s then sent to Alliston Creamery, the last independent creamery in Ontario, where it’s barrel-churned until the cream forms popcorn-size curds and reaches a butterfat concentration of 84 per cent. (Regular butter clocks in at 80 per cent.) Those bougie curds are then worked into a giant, golden heap of butter, from which 250-gram blocks—both salted and unsalted—are sent to a growing number of southern Ontario fancy food shops, including Cheese Boutique, Big Carrot, Sanagan’s and Hooked.
These inflationary times may seem like an inopportune moment to launch a single-herd, grass-fed, organic butter that retails for $13. But this isn’t everyday butter. You wouldn’t make grilled cheese sandwiches with Délice de Bourgogne, right? (Though, hey, that’s cool if you can.) Instead, it’s best enjoyed as gourmet accelerant, say when there’s a fresh-from-the-oven boule of sourdough to be eaten. Straight out of the fridge, the butter goes on like a young gouda; at room temperature, it spreads like an edible golden polymer, pooling into every tiny air pocket of the bread before congealing into a sublime semi-solid state—such “plasticity” is a prized trait among butter connoisseurs. And it adds uncanny smoothness and richness to sauces and emulsions.
Qualitatively, van Nes’s single-herd butter has almost as much in common with wine or coffee than it does with common butter. Unlike in the mass-market stuff made from commingled dairy, there’s actual terroir here, with a taste that could only have come from the unique set of conditions present on van Nes’s farm (which is on the path to becoming the first regenerative, certified-organic dairy farm in the country). And, like wine or coffee, the butter will taste different from year to year or even season to season.
“We want to take people back to how butter used to be and how it should be and how it hasn’t been for years,” van Nes says. Next year, he hopes to launch seasonal butters—vintages, really—made from milk harvested during the spring flush, when his cows are going absolutely all-you-can-eat on pastures peaking with grassy goodness. Who wouldn’t want to get on board with that?