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On my plate: TV cook James Martin on his churning love for butter

© John CareyFormer Saturday Kitchen presenter James Martin
Former Saturday Kitchen presenter James Martin

Every now and again, chef James Martin’s mum would let him make his own packed lunch – and on those occasions, he knew exactly what was going in his Spider-Man lunchbox.

“I’d have buttered white sliced bread and mashed-up banana with a Cadbury Flake on it, press it down, wrap it in cling film,” he remembers fondly. “Then you get to lunchtime and it would sort of look – when it was out the cling film – almost like a tennis ball. It would be all congealed together. But you managed to eat it. Nobody wanted to swap with me, but it was proper.”

Several decades on, this is a Yorkshireman who puts butter on roast potatoes and has now written an entire cookbook devoted to the yellow stuff, simply titled Butter.

“It shouldn’t be a controversial topic, but let’s be honest, people can get judgy about how much butter you slather on stuff. Everyone believes their way of buttering toast is the ‘right’ way.

“If it was my granny, she would butter it so much you could see a wedge of butter on it. I can’t do butter if it’s not visual on hot toast,” says Martin of his own butter-to-toast ratio preference. “I can’t eat it; it’s got to be enough butter to make it still visual.”

Then there are the health concerns – Martin, 49, has a family history of heart disease and has a check-up every six months. “I’m fine,” he says. “It’s everything in moderation. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. So there you go. If you complain about me putting butter on my bread, then stop bloody smoking or stop drinking.”

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One of the reasons butter can (ahem) churn up so many opinions, he says, is because “people don’t know as much about it as they should”. The telly chef recently did a demo where 50% of the audience didn’t know how it was made. “People just think butter is butter, and it’s not,” he says. “If you’re going to do French-style patisserie, you just don’t use the stuff you get in the supermarket – it’s too heavily watered, and there’s too much water in buttermilk. Really, really good pastry butter should snap in half like a Dairy Milk.”

The chef is classically French-trained himself, and he believes there is no substitute for butter – certainly not margarine. “Margarine should be banned. It’s dreadful, dreadful stuff,” he says. “It’s two elements away from plastic, it’s horrendous stuff.

“I’m a farmer’s kid. We’ve always had full-fat milk, butter and cream. And that’s what we had. There wasn’t such a thing as semi-skimmed milk in our house.”

James Martin’s new book (Pic: John Carey/PA)

He suggests those anti-butter arguments don’t factor in the full picture. Of course, eating a block a day isn’t going to be good for you, but it’s not the butter consumption that’s the biggest problem facing the nation’s health.

He said: “It’s the ready-made food, it’s the packet food, the hidden salt, hidden fat – that’s the problem in this country. It’s not the butter in a butter block, or butter you put on your toast. It’s the fact that not as many people cook in the UK as they do in France or Italy or Spain.”

The pandemic has shifted that attitude slightly, he reckons, and he also believes people are now more appreciative of the restaurant industry and those who work in it.

The bookings for his own restaurants are busier than ever – although an issue is the exodus of hospitality staff, which Martin puts more down to individuals having the space and time to consider their job prospects over the various lockdowns, rather than just Brexit.

He argues aspects of the food scene need to change to entice people back, including customers being willing to pay more for what they’re getting.

James Martin (Pic: John Carey/PA)

“You go to France and have a croissant or a coffee, it’s twice the price it is over here. You don’t question it when you’re on holiday, because that’s the price,” says Martin.

“We’re too price-sensitive in terms of food in our supermarkets. We constantly strive for cheaper and cheaper food and as much as it’s great to have value, for sure, you can’t continue that spiral down. At some point, you’re going to hit rock bottom.”

Whatever the difficulties Martin says he loves the business because ultimately he loves feeding people.

He said: “Our job is to serve and help and provide a service for other people, for them to enjoy themselves. That’s what we do. That’s why we work the hours we work. Feeding people is a magical thing – and if there’s butter involved, all the better.”

James Martin’s roast crab with lime and chilli butter

The delicious recipe

This buttery crab deserves a great hunk of bread.

“This can be served as either potted crab spread on warm toast or, as I like to serve it, just melted in a dish so it warms the crab and fully melts the butter,” says James Martin.

“That way all the flavours of the kaffir lime leaves come out.”

Serves: 2

You’ll need

  • 100g butter, softened
  • Zest and juice of 2 limes
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 1 lemongrass stick, finely chopped
  • 4 spring onions, sliced
  • 2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped, plus extra leaves to serve
  • 1 red chilli, finely diced
  • 300g white crab meat
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

  • Toasted sourdough

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/400F/gas 6.
  2. Beat together the butter, lime zest and juice, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, spring onions, coriander and chilli. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Spoon the crab into two ovenproof dishes and top with the butter. Place them on a baking tray and roast for 10 minutes until hot and bubbling.
  4. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve straight away, with toasted sourdough on the side.

Butter: Comforting, Delicious, Versatile – Over 130 Recipes Celebrating Butter by James Martin, photography by John Carey, Quadrille, £22, out now