The great butter famine of 2011

It is a major crisis. The news quickly spread across the world last week that Norway is in the midst of a shortage of dire significance. No, they aren’t running out of money like the rest of the world. They still have oil. They have ample supplies of pickled herring. It is more serious than that.

Norway has a butter shortage.

An unusually wet summer cut the food supply of the nation’s milk cows at the same time as Norwegians discovered a low carbohydrate, high fat diet craze. Butter demand rose 20 percent in October and 30 percent in November, just as milk supplies dropped. They ate up their Christmas supply early.

Norwegians tax imported butter at a high rate to protect their own producers from cheap foreign competition. Most of the dairy farmers in the country sell their milk to a cooperative which controls a majority of the dairy products sold. Milk production is controlled to ensure higher prices and further guarantee farmers’ income. Most of the time, things seem to work well. This year, however, someone miscalculated the balance of supply and demand.

Grocery store coolers are empty. The cows can’t keep up and the butter churns are working overtime. This is probably not as serious as the Irish potato famine or the disastrous food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa. Still it is a crisis for a country known for it’s cookies and cream porridge. Some are resorting to desperate measures but few have gone so far as to try substituting margarine or other spreads.

A butter black market is developing. On line-auction sites are offering butter at hundreds of dollars a pound. A man was even caught smuggling more than a hundred pounds across the border from Sweden in his car. The government has responded by cutting tariffs on imported butter. Unfortunately, the increased supplies of foreign gold will be too late for many to bake their favorite cookies or to slather this staple of Norwegian cuisine on their lefse.

Let’s face it. There really is no substitute for real butter. Cookies just don’t have the same texture when baked with shortening or margarine. Corn dripping with some other spread just doesn’t taste the same. Nothing can be used in place of melted, clarified butter on lutefisk. Of course, that is probably not a problem in most of Norway as it seems that most of the lutefisk connoisseurs emigrated to the United States sometime in the last century and no one who still lives in Norway eats dried, lye-soaked, reconstituted cod fish any more.

Once vilified as a food directly connected to cardiovascular disease, scientists now tell us that butter in moderation is not as bad as we have been told. Some nutritionist even hold that butter is good for you, especially if the cows producing the milk live in the sunshine and eat fresh green grass every day. The key words are “in moderation.”

A few years ago, we had Norwegian friends come to stay with us for a couple of weeks. We had a wonderful time. After a few days of my cooking, my friend, Tom, said he wanted to cook for us. He went to the grocery store for supplies. He came home with several bags of food, including five pounds of butter and a couple of quarts of cream. Within about 48 hours we had consumed all the dairy products he bought. The food was delicious. It must be genetic. My Norwegian taste buds loved every bite. Amazingly, I don’t think I gained any weight.

So as you sit down to your Christmas dinner, remember our friends and relatives still living in Norway. They are probably doing without spritz and krumkakke and lefse with butter and sugar and all of those other buttery Christmas treats. Count your blessings and don’t waste the butter.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains