Vologda Butter - Gastro Obscura

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Vologda Butter

This regional Russian delicacy once called itself Parisian.

Vologda butter is so good that a margarine company once branded itself the Vologda butter of margarine. This award-winning butter, made in Vologda, Russia, around 250 miles from Moscow, is distinguished by its creaminess and the aftertaste of walnuts.

The story begins, as all stories of good dairy must, in Paris. Attending the 1867 Paris Exposition, an international trade fair, Nikolai Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, brother of the famed Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin, was transformed by his first taste of Normandy butter. Nobody would share the recipe with him, so the defiant Slav went home to Vologda to begin his own quest for dairy fat preeminence. He set up a dairy farm in Molochnoe, a village near Vologda, whose name literally means “milky.” Vereshchagin found that running the milk through the cream separator twice, rather than the standard one time, yielded a richer, sweeter butter. He found, moreover, that churning butter from hot cream, warmed for 10 to 15 minutes to just below boiling point, yielded a nuttier aftertaste. This small but significant innovation, combined with the particular terrain on which Vologda’s grass-fed cows grazed, yielded unmatched buttery perfection.

Vereshchagin showcased his butter at another Paris Exposition in the late 1800s, where it won the gold medal, in a cutting snub at its Norman inspiration. To take retribution further, Vereschagin named his creation Parisian butter, arguably as both irony and a smart marketing move.

Following Parisian butter’s international acclaim, a factory solely for its production opened in 1916, but the Russian Revolution of 1917 shattered hopes of lasting global fame. Production was stopped, then restarted under government supervision. In 1939, Parisian butter had to drop its European association and change its name to Vologda butter. Finally, with the fall of Communism in 1991, the Vologda Dairy Factory returned to private hands. However, by this point, an entire cottage industry of counterfeit Vologda butter had spread across the world, none of it made in Vologda. To quell this grease spill of deception, the Russian government in 2010 declared that only butter produced in Vologda could be labeled Vologda butter, giving this beloved local product Russia’s first protected designation of origin.

There are two varieties of Vologda butter: the 82 percent butterfat slivochnoe (meaning “creamy”) and the lower butterfat (72.5 percent) krestyanskoye (meaning “peasant”). It should ideally be consumed within a month of production, after which it loses some of its fulsome nutty sweetness.

An expert in dairy technology, Vereshchagin also founded the Vologda State Milk Academy in 1911, which claims to be the oldest educational institution in the Russian North. Inspired by his field research on the dairy industries in Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany, he set up several dairy farms in the greater Vologda region. The first cream separator in Russia was also in Vologda, and the region has had a strong presence in the country’s dairy industry.

Vologda butter is hard to purchase outside of Vologda and large Russian cities such as Moscow. But should you find some, you can boast of procuring some of the world’s best Parisian butter, manufactured and sold exclusively in Russia.

Need to Know

The Vologda Butter Museum, housed in the Vologda Open Air Museum of Architecture and Ethnography, showcases the local butter industry with exhibits and historical documents.

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