''In every country where I have traveled I have never failed to obtain fresh-churned butter," Alexandre Dumas writes in his "Great Dictionary of Cuisine" (1873).|

''In every country where I have traveled I have never failed to obtain fresh-churned butter," Alexandre Dumas writes in his "Great Dictionary of Cuisine" (1873).

"Wherever I went," he continues, "I procured cow's, camel's, mare's or ewe's milk. I filled a bottle with it three quarters full, stoppered it and fastened it to my horse's neck. My horse did the rest. When I arrived at my destination, I unstoppered the bottle, and there was a piece of butter as large as my fist."

At its most basic, butter is the result of simply agitating milk, which is to say, butter happens naturally.

It is an essential ingredient year round. For something so simple, it does a lot of heavy lifting in the kitchen and at the table, from transferring heat and facilitating browning to creating delicate textures and extraordinary flavors.

Butter, especially butter from the milk of grass-fed animals, is one of the healthiest foods and healthiest fats there is. It is full of essential nutrients, some that we get only from butter or other similar fats such as whole milk, whole milk yogurt and cheese. If you need studies to be convinced, peruse the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation, westonaprice.org.

Jacques P??pin, beloved French chef and television personality, loves to chide Americans about this fear of butter.

"Americans!" he has exclaimed on the set of his PBS series. "You are terrified of using a tiny bit of butter, but you'll pour olive oil over everything."

I love how he responds when asked to describe the best meal he's ever eaten, a question that has no truly honest response.

"I love very good bread with great butter," he says, adding that if you include a piece of saucisson (a French dry cured sausage), it is even better.

Come spring, butter should be one of your best culinary friends. Nothing else flatters such a broad range of spring foods, letting their delicacy blossom and enhancing both their tastes and textures. In the summer, extra virgin olive oil is every bit as crucial and perhaps more so; but now, when the first of the year's harvest is unfolding, butter is often better.

In Sonoma County, we are blessed with extraordinary butter from cows that graze in pastures and live, by comparison to their inland cousins, a gentle life free of stress. If you're not using local butter, keep in mind that it's better for you, it's better for our economy, and it's better for our agriculture.

Not all butter is equal. Quality is based on percentage of butterfat. The higher the percentage, the better the butter, and the better the butter, the less you use.

Commodity butter -- which is to say the major national brands -- lacks the freshness, as it is stored in a warehouse in the Midwest and shipped around the country.

If cost is prohibitive, there are many ways to save. Locally owned supermarkets frequently put local butter on sale. If you use a lot, you can stock up, as well-wrapped butter will keep in the freezer for two to three months.

Local brands include McClelland's, which is available at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, plus Spring Hill Farms, Straus Family Creamery and Clover. Straus products are available at the Sonoma Valley Farmers Market on Friday mornings; you'll also find Spring Hill Farms there. All are now widely distributed throughout the county.

If you prefer the slightly tangy flavor once available only in butters from Europe, look for those that include cultured cream in the ingredient list. When cream is cultured before it is churned, it has a richer, deeper flavor with just a hint of acidity that many people find quite delicious.

Butter in springtime

One of the pleasures of butter in the spring is that you really don't need recipes. You simply need excellent butter and very fresh produce. Here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy the season's harvest.

* French breakfast radishes with butter and Maldon sea salt, either as an appetizer or, with the radishes very thinly sliced, as a simple sandwich.

* Blanched English peas with butter, Maldon sea salt and shredded fresh mint. This is excellent served neat or over creamy Italian rice.

* Roasted asparagus tossed with butter, Maldon sea salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

* Boiled or steamed artichokes with melted butter for dipping. When new garlic is ready, slice some into the melted butter.

* Blanched leeks drizzled with butter and topped with snipped fresh chives.

* Pastured eggs cooked until just firm (about 12 minutes in gently simmering water), peeled and topped with butter, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

* Toasted bread slathered with room-temperature butter and topped with several generous turns of good black pepper.

* Roasted chicken basted with butter during the last 20 minutes of cooking, served on a bed of fresh spring herbs and sorrel and topped with the pan juices.

Compound butters, also known as flavored butters, are delicious and simple to prepare. This is one of my favorites at this time of year.

Sorrel Butter

Makes about 1/2 cup

4 ounces butter, at room temperature

1 small shallot, minced

2/3 cup finely shredded fresh sorrel

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

-- Black pepper in a mill

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small saute pan set over medium low heat. Add the shallot and cook until it is limp and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the sorrel, saute until limp, remove from the heat and cool completely.

Put the cooled sorrel mixture, the parsley, the remaining butter, the lemon zest and the salt into the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add several turns of black pepper and pulse again.

Transfer the butter to a large sheet of wax paper, mold into a log about 1 inch in diameter, and roll tightly. Wrap in plastic and chill thoroughly before using.

To use, slice off a coin of butter and toss with spring vegetables, pasta, rice, quinoa or other grains, or serve atop grilled or fried fish.

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