The Butter Viking
|Patrik Johansson aka The Butter Viking|
Patrik Johansson has had quite a life. He managed a coffee plantation in Madagascar, prospected for gold, lived in New York and Paris and for ten years owned his own IT company. But for the last six years, he's been living in the Swedish wilderness and making butter. 'I made more money, but there was no passion, no romantic thoughts about grass and cows,' said Johansson over coffee at London restaurant Grain Store where earlier this year he collaborated on a special menu with head chef Bruno Loubet and Frank Hederman of Belvelly Smoke House in Cork.
Commercial brands aside, Johansson is the world's best known butter maker and the 47 year old Swede is unabashed about the reason for his fame as the Butter Viking. 'I guess its all thanks to Noma. We were supplying the restaurant just before they were named number one for the first time. It was amazing, we went there and had a meeting with Rene, he was the first one to buy our virgin butter which is quite different to normal butter. He saw the potential in it whereas a lot of other chefs didn't really understand.'
|Johansson's butters churned at the Grain Store in London, February 2014|
Things could have turned out differently however. 'About four years ago, a Swedish chef told me he was going to London to work for Gordon Ramsay and I asked him to take samples of our butter with him. I heard nothing. I tried to call the Swedish chef but no answer. It was not until one year after that he told me he didn’t dare to present it to Ramsay because it was so different.'
So what makes Johansson's virgin butter ('Normal butter we have plastic gloves and we work it with our hands, this butter is never touched by man so it's kind of virgin and the name kind of stuck,' says Johansson) so unique?
'My grandma was a butter maker in the 40's 50's and 60's and she taught me how to make butter, but I'm sorry grandma, I do the opposite to what you might say. I've read 400 scientific papers on the subject and I have been experimenting a lot. I don’t wash my butter with a lot of water to get rid of the buttermilk, on the contrary, I want as much of the buttermilk to stay in the butter. It may not keep as long as her butter did and it's not suitable for frying meat or baking, its only suitable for the table. We want maximum flavour, not maximum 'keepability'.'
|Grain Store restaurant, London|
Johansson refuses to reveal the entirety of his production method but does say that he uses 40 per cent fat cream that's cultured for three days (instead of the more usual 8-18 hours) and that a secret temperature curve and precise timings are crucial to the churning process. 'If I churn five seconds too long, if I just turn my back its ruined, it turns into normal butter and buttermilk. I have to constantly watch it.'
The result is an incredibly distinctive and delicious butter; light and creamy but with a complex flavour and pronounced but balanced acidity. It makes an ideal partner to Hederman's superb, subtly beech wood smoked salmon that's served as a starter at the Grain Store meal. As well butter made from crème fraiche smoked by Hederman, Johansson served his pièce de résistance, King's Butter, originally created for a royal visit to Gothenburg by the King of Sweden.
|Frank Hederman's smoked salmon served with virgin butter at the Grain Store|
'We would never sell it because it takes ages to make. I came up with this idea of cream cultured for three days and salted until it sings in your mouth. I melt regular butter and add it drop by drop on the surface of the cream, wait a minute or two, fold it down gently, repeat the process 30-40 times until the cream is saturated with small pearls of butter.'
Passion is a word too easily used in connection with food, but not when it comes to Johansson. Unable to compromise on quality, he turned his back on a thousand square metre production facility when investors suggested he used cheaper cream and now commutes weekly to the Noma kitchens to make virgin butter on site.
'I hope to find a place here in London where I can come two times a month and make some butter. There are several interesting restaurants here and we have previously supplied some places,' says Johansson. 'I have to find an investor again I guess. There might be someone who understands. We make a profit, its not that much but I feel good. I just love this food business.'