I try to live my life without regrets, but when I read a story like the one in the Sunday Times Magazine, on buttermilk, it’s hard not to have at least one. Years ago, while staying at Blackberry Farm, the fabulously luxurious Relais & Chateau Inn nestled in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the then-chef of the inn’s acclaimed restaurant, John Fleer, told me about two of the sources behind his biscuits-and-gravy breakfast: One was the buttermilk-producing family featured in the Times article, the other was Allan Benton, one of the lone surviving producers left of the nearly extinct population of Southern, mostly Appalachian makers of country ham. The two were in opposite directions. I was driving from coast-to-coast and had a general rule, in order to eventually make it to California, of trying at the very least to drive in one general direction. I asked him which I should visit, and he told me Benton. I mean, if I had to choose.
Benton is indeed special–both he and his hams, which are now used by big name chefs all across the country, such as David Chang, who calls for a whole bone-in country ham in a recipe for grits even though the recipe calls for just a few scraps, because, he assures you, the dry-cured, preserved ham, you’ll have several months to use the rest of the ham. I followed Fleer’s direction and spent the better part of that afternoon with Benton, an afternoon I will never forget, where he showed me his hams in various stages of aging, explained the intricacies of the dying craft, and sent me on my way, arms laden with bacon so smoky I’m sure my rented car still smells like bacon, sweet sorghum, and sacks of flour and cornmeal, both milled right there in Madisonville, where Benton is located. And Benton remembers me, too, as the only person he knows who has never drank a Coca-Cola. This is a weird fact anywhere I happen to mention it but in the South, it’s like telling him that unlike the rest of you, I don’t breathe air.
But back to the buttermilk. The Times story got me thinking of all the things I’d like to make with buttermilk: ice cream, panna cotta, not to mention that pound cake that looked pretty darned good in the picture and would be great, I imagine, with some buttermilk ice cream. But here’s the part where “artisinal” gets the last laugh: They only deliver within 90 miles! Of course they do. And to think that I once could have brought some home…
Years ago I worked at a prepared food store in the Hamptons, Loaves & Fishes, known as much for their astronomically high prices as for anything else. It was a family-run business, with the older generation having come here from Germany, and the old man used to spend his days tinkering about the property fixing things and what not. When he was needed a break, he often had what he told me was a typical lunch on a hot day in the dairy farm countryside where he was from: buttermilk soup. It always looked so delicious and refreshing–and he so content sitting there at a picnic table in the shade of a big elm tree. Here’s the recipe: Take some chilled butermilk–the best you can find and it would be nice if it were churned right there, that is: within 90 miles of wherever you are. Mix it with some sugar–as much as it takes to take the sour bite out of the buttermilk. Pour it in a bowl and then throw on some cut-up strawberries–ideally still warm from the sun uner which they were just picked. Find a table in the shade of a large tree. Sit down and enjoy.