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THE GREAT CRÈME FRAÎCHE MURDER MYSTERY OF 2024

Updated: Apr 4

The age-old recipe for homemade crème fraîche suddenly stopped working, and DannyM. wanted to know why.


If you really want to solve a problem, don't be a Karen, be THIS GUY--

polite, if annoyingly persistent; inquisitive, analytical, and thorough

until the answer becomes obvious.


I came to love crème fraîche as a neophyte foodie in the 1980's. It was a chi-chi, Silver Palate/Martha Stewart thing... a cornerstone of Nouvelle Cuisine as a sauce, an ingredient, and a hip substitute for sour cream, yogurt, and other dairy products. And unlike most dairy products, it was really easy to make at home-- just add a wee splash of buttermilk to a pint of heavy cream, then let the active cultures work their magic overnight at room temperature. Presto! Thick, rich, and delicious crème fraîche. I've been making it this way for more than half my life.


But then, Dear Readers, this age-old, time-tested recipe very suddenly stopped working.


You can purchase ready-made crème fraîche, but it was always easy and

way cheaper to make at home... that is, until the recipe no longer worked.


With pointless wars raging all over the globe, millions needlessly dying, whole national economies crumbling, and Western Civilization itself seemingly teetering at the edge of collapse, going without one's crème fraîche is perhaps the downright self-parodic epitome of a "First-World Problem." But dammit, there had to be a clear reason for this abrupt failure of such a simple process, and a mind like mine couldn't help but race in search of an explanation-- Sunspots? Pesticides? Genetically (mis)engineered cultures? 5G? Maybe a Deep State conspiracy to flush out paranoids?


Or maybe... none of the above?


We humans somehow managed to survive the pre-pasteurization era

when buttermilk was simply the liquid residue from butter churning.


In the era before mandatory pasteurization in America, raw milk (and the cream scooped from it) commonly underwent bio-chemical changes prior to consumption or butter-churning thanks to the naturally-occurring live bacteria cultures. Buttermilk was originally the tangy and biologically lively liquid remaining after butter was churned from slightly "cultured" cream. Nowadays, however, buttermilk is made from  pasteurized milk by adding live cultures and letting them "work," giving the milk an acidic tang as well as that "biological liveliness" necessary for further processes and reactions.


To make my own crème fraîche, I'd long been buying buttermilk produced by a nearby dairy, one self-styled as "artisanal" and located in an oh-so-precious and comically snooty suburb-- we'll just call it Swank Dairy for now. Swank Dairy happens to be the only manufacturer anywhere near me that produces and sells full-fat (or "whole") cultured buttermilk. (I avoid anything labeled "low-fat," which I consider gastronomic fat-shaming. Besides, in low-fat ANYTHING they usually replace the fat with artificial crap far worse for you.) So when their buttermilk stopped working, I began to channel my inner Columbo.


I suspect that every generation and indeed every individual viewer entertains their own specific notions of what constitutes "The Golden Age of Television." For me, it spans roughly from the first episode of I LOVE LUCY in 1951 to the series finale of NYPD BLUE in 2005. This half-century of prime-time TV gave us many memorable characters, a small handful of which managed to outlive their shows as stand-alone icons and become Internet meme material to this very day, all while re-runs of their shows remain popular on various streaming services. My short list of such figures includes Lucy from the aforementioned I LOVE LUCY, Sgt. Schultz from HOGAN'S HEROES, Mr. Spock from STAR TREK... and the frumpy, cigar-chomping, beagle-loving, secretly brilliant LAPD Detective Frank Columbo from the eponymous NBC show-- simply COLUMBO-- that began airing in 1971.


"Scuse me-- mind if I ask you a few questions?"


I initiated my Columbo-esque inquiry by telephoning Swank Dairy. Absolutely nothing has changed in their buttermilk-making process, the cashier who answered the phone immediately insisted; maybe I should try again with their latest batch. After failures with two more batches-- AND an unsolicited report from a neighbor of the same exact problem-- I called the dairy again... and then a few more times. I was eventually told that I needed to speak with their plant manager, who would be available the following morning. I called as directed. He was in, but he was too busy to take a call. They supposedly left my name and number on his desk so he could call back as soon as he was available. He didn't, so I called again the next day.



Lt. Columbo:

So you're the plant manager? And you make ALL these great products?

Isn't that amazing... all from plain old milk.


Swank Dairy:

Our milk is neither plain nor old, Lieutenant. Now, if you'll excuse me--


Lt. Columbo:

Certainly, Sir. Oh, just one more thing...


As I believe I demonstrated in ANATOMY OF A REFUND, I'm always polite and respectful when addressing customer service with product issues... even when such manners aren't reciprocated, as in Swank Dairy's verbal eye-roll in response to my next call-- "You're the buttermilk guy, right?" Swank Dairy's plant manager quickly became suspiciously skittish about discussing the specifics of their processes. I'd need to speak with the owner, he said; he would be in at 10:00am. I called at 10:15, and I was told that the owner was out of town for the day. They gave me his email address. I got a mailer daemon response.


I eventually found my way to the "contact us" option that was fairly well hidden on Swank Dairy's website, and I sent them a message that would hopefully reach the owner--


Dear Sir--

I've been in contact with your company several times trying to answer my question-- what has recently changed with your buttermilk? I've been making my own crème fraîche for 40 years... and in the last month I've had FOUR batches fail to thicken. I used your buttermilk all 4 times, all with different expiration dates... with the same disappointing result. If you don't believe me, please try to make some crème fraîche yourself with your heavy cream & buttermilk as I did.

Looking forward to a response.

 Thanks! --Danny


No response. Now it was time for me to go to war... not with Swank Dairy, mind you, but with the problem itself. I wanted the truth.


I dare say I'm blessed with a somewhat scientific mind; I have a working grasp of chemistry, and I know physics well enough to (grumpily) man-splain things like space travel and nuclear reactors and the upcoming solar eclipse. However, I wasn't paying very close attention back in high school biology class, and I avoided the subject entirely in college. And so to find the answer to my problem I would have to do some serious digging.


THE MICROBIOLOGY OF DAIRY PRODUCTS

"Fermentation" isn't just the well-known reaction by which yeast turns grape sugar into ethyl alcohol. According to my desktop dictionary, such a biological process is generally "the chemical breakdown (or metabolism) of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other means, often producing by-products such as carbon dioxide and/or heat." In this situation we focus on the work performed by bacteria... and if you ever want to explore a very deep rabbit hole, try power-learning for yourself exactly what bacteria are.


"King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti" is (or used to be) the mnemonic device by which high-schoolers recalled the hierarchical organization (a.k.a. the taxonomy) of all life forms-- Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, & Species. But twentieth-century scientists found that bacteria didn't categorize very neatly-- they are way too small to scientifically examine as one would, say, a squirrel or a daffodil; so primitive a single-celled organism as to lack even a nucleus... indeed, difficult to peg as either plant or animal. Furthermore, bacteria are numerous in the extreme, some 5 nonillion strong in the Earth's ecosphere. (That's the number five followed by thirty zeros.) And so in 1990 the scientific community came up with a NEW highest level of taxonomy-- the Domain, also known as a super-kingdom, dominion, realm, and empire.


And bacteria, they declared, are important enough to merit two of the three Domains:


The New World Order-- the three Domains are bacteria, archaea (a different type of bacteria)

and eukara (living things that have cells with nuclei and DNA.)


And so, descending from the recently-minted bacteria Domains down the taxonomic ladder to a specific Order, Lactobacillales are bacteria that metabolize carbohydrates into lactic acid. (All you would ever want to know about Lactic Acid Bacteria-- a.k.a. LAB-- is HERE.)



Lactic Acid Bacteria perform a wide array of essential jobs.

Lactobacillales include the bacteria responsible for such tongue-tingling delights as kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles. For our purposes here we'll confine ourselves to the sub-category-- i.e., the genus-- responsible for many of our dairy products by specifically converting naturally-occurring milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid.



Lt. Columbo:

That's just incredible... these little creatures are way too small to even see, but they

create all these different great foods! Amazing! You know, my wife just loves sauerkraut.

I can't eat it 'cause it gives me gas, but my wife-- why, she'll even eat it for breakfast.


Swank Dairy:

Lieutenant, PLEASE!


Much of the dairy section at your local grocer depends on just two ingredients-- milk from cows or other ruminants, and various strains of bacteria that turn the milk into other products like yogurt, sour cream, and kefir. Cream is scooped from the top layer of freshly-drawn milk, half & half is a mixture of the two, and butter is made from churning cream.


Swank Dairy's buttermilk label claims that it contains "Whole Milk and Cultures." A fair interpretation, therefore, would be that "cultures" indicates the kind of live bacteria capable of turning the naturally present lactose (milk sugar) found in milk and cream into the lactic acid that gives buttermilk its familiar tangy flavor... and if the cultures were truly "active" (as in alive) then their buttermilk should turn my heavy cream into crème fraîche in a matter of hours at room temperature... just as it has done until very recently.


Swank Dairy's buttermilk TASTES like buttermilk, but it now fails to PERFORM like buttermilk. And so, after considerable research, experimentation, and detective work-- and in the absence of any honest assistance or input or timely responses from Swank Dairy-- I've drawn a troubling but unavoidable conclusion. I defer to Lt. Columbo to explain:



Swank Dairy:

And what, exactly, is THIS runny mess, Lieutenant?


Lt. Columbo:

It's what happens when I try to make crème fraîche

with your Swank Dairy buttermilk, Sir.


Swank Dairy:

 You... make your own crème fraîche?


Lt. Columbo:

My wife likes a little in her mashed potatoes.

I always put a spoonful on my chili. Do you like chili?

Boy, I know this great little--


Swank Dairy:

We... we never imagined anyone still made their own crème fraîche.


Lt. Columbo:

A celebrity chef in Santa Monica taught me right before

I put him away for murder. What puzzled me was your

buttermilk tasted the same, but it wasn't working right anymore.

The lab boys were able to confirm that your buttermilk

contains lactic acid, but no active cultures. Which means

either you're re-pasteurizing it, or you're just adding the acid

to your milk and then selling it as real buttermilk.

Either way, it's fraudulently labeled. You're under arrest.


Swank Dairy:

(Sigh) I hope they have decent cream for my prison coffee.


Lt. Columbo:

I'll personally see to that, Sir.


So yes, I honestly believe that Swank Dairy has recently started selling what is essentially fake buttermilk; however, I seriously doubt that they'll ever be held accountable for this beyond the readership of this essay. Whatever. Now that the mystery was solved (at least to my satisfaction) I still had a problem-- how would I make my crème fraîche?


By first making my own buttermilk.


For about $3 a pop including postage, the little culture packets inside

this envelope make half a gallon of buttermilk each.


My Internet search turned up New England Cheese Making Supply Company and I ordered some buttermilk starter culture. I then found Serenity Meadows, a Jersey cow raw milk dairy farm in Weedsport, NY, conveniently located right off the New York State Thruway on my weekly trip back to Rochester.


The SERENITY MEADOWS self-serve store.

Their cash register has written directions for how to use it--


This place hit me right in the heart... restoring (at least partially)

my faith in the inherent baseline goodness of all humankind.


Wagyu beef has become so synonymous with tip-top quality that the name "Wagyu" is being co-opted as a generalized gastronomic superlative, e.g., Kurobuta pigs described as "the Wagyu of Pork" and Australian White ovines "the Wagyu of Lamb." By this standard, Serenity Farms' Mennonite-produced, 100% grass-fed, A2 Jersey cow raw milk might well be the "Wagyu of milk." This is the kind of stuff I live for to find and share.


Jersey Girls-- maybe they should call this breed "Dairy Queens"

for the unparalleled excellence of their output.


I combined my mail-order active cultures with this fabulous raw milk and made my own buttermilk, which I then added to heavy cream. And two days later (one for each step) I once again had homemade crème fraîche. Maybe I should have stopped right there, but then a possible hack occurred to me-- since I had the cultures, what if I skipped the buttermilk step and emptied a culture packet directly into the heavy cream? I'm delighted to report that this worked quickly and beautifully... if significantly more expensively.


I'll save this hack for some future crème fraîche emergency.



NOTES:


New England Cheese Making Supply Company sells citric acid and tartaric acid for cheese making, but not lactic acid. HOWEVER, I did find lactic acid sold by the gallon from numerous online dealers like THIS one. And so, without picking through Swank Dairy's dumpster for evidence of surreptitiously outsourced lactic acid-- and thus the proverbial smoking gun-- I'm satisfied that I've found the means and opportunity for their deceit, if not the motive... be it greed, cost effectiveness, limited culture availability, or whatever. And while I don't have the LAPD's "lab boys" at my disposal, my numerous failed attempts at making crème fraîche with what Swank Dairy is selling as "buttermilk" serves as a prima facie laboratory test that proves their fraudulent labeling.


If Swank Dairy gets wind of this essay and takes offense, I will gladly grant them the space to state their case... and I'll be happy to apologize and also print a full retraction if they succeed in proving me wrong in this matter. FWIW, they're going up against my uncannily accurate B.S. alarm.


Yes, the lactic acid responsible for crème fraîche is the very same lactic acid that makes your thigh muscles feel like they're on fire toward the end of a grueling ergometer race.


Full episodes of COLUMBO are available on AppleTV. And if you want to see the sum total of Columbo captured in just a few minutes, HERE is Emmy-winning actor Peter Falk's epic appearance in full character as Columbo at the 1978 Frank Sinatra Celebrity Roast.


Some Recipes Using Crème Fraîche:

30 Uses for Créme Fraîche (The Copper Table)

Twelve Ways to Use Créme Fraîche (The Vermont Creamery)


In addition to Serenity Meadows IN WEEDSPORT, NY, here are two more REAL boutique dairies that raise Jersey Cows and label their products honestly--


Highlawn Farm (Lee, MA)


JERSEY BELL DAIRY FARM (Waterloo, NY)

Their milk is raw... and their website is down, but info is available HERE.




And on a larger scale, I'm happy to recommend various VERMONT CREAMERY products such as cultured butter, goat cheese... and crème fraîche, if you don't care to make your own. Vermont Creamery products are available at WEGMANS among other top-quality retailers.




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