June 28, 2019

Butter Makes it Better

Yesterday, I sent my younger daughter to a grocery store in Tzfat to buy a few provisions.  Butter has been on my shopping list since March so I asked her, nonchalantly, to check for it...just in case. 

She came back with butter. Woo hoo! Real butter - I was so excited, I took a photo of it and sent it to my family members.

Ok. Since when does one get so excited over a package of butter that it must be documented and proof sent via What’s App? Are we in times of rationing? Are we living in 2019, in a first-world country without basic provisions?

Turns out, yes.

I had never gone grocery shopping with ‘butter’ on my list only to return home without. But as of March, this is the situation in Israel.

Before Pesach, I innocently went to the store in search of this staple. The shelf was bare. I pulled aside the yogurts, peeked deep behind the margarine and removed the sour creams. No butter.

Not really butter....
I asked a clerk who was stocking the dairy shelves. He pointed out where butter has always been and scratched his head in confusion. Hands in prayer position, I tried to ‘butter him up,’ beseeching him to just peek into the storage area; surely there was a large pallet of butter just waiting to be placed on this empty, lonely shelf.  

He came back empty handed, more distressed than ever, and suggested an alternative that looked way too much like margarine. I read the ingredients and when I saw canola oil listed on the container, I dropped it with butterfingers and came home empty handed.  

The next day, when I visited my daughter who lives in the Shomron, I asked her about butter.  She lives near a large Rami Levi grocery store where, surely, they would have butter. She then looked at me with knowing eyes and leaned over as if she were initiating her immigrant mother into a well-known fact of Israeli life.

“Haven’t you heard? There’s no butter. You won’t find it in the major grocery stores, but....”

She opened her fridge and tenderly cradled a bar of butter like it were a diamond tiara. “Butter can still be found in small shops, like the tiny corner store in my settlement.”

My eyes grew wide. Really? 

Seems like this is a country-wide phenomenon and it has been going on for so long that major bakeries have been forced to change their recipes and have gone vegan. The bakeries were so panicked, they even brought in an Israeli pastry chef who was working for the Royal Family to help them reformat their recipes.

She was successful. One bakery, using her recommendations, went vegan after Pesach and will now save 12,000 eggs, 370 litres of milk and 250 kilos of butter a year by baking vegan mocha cakes.

Innovative bakeries are now producing delicious, nutritious, butter-free alternatives that are cheaper to make, saving money and making healthier cakes and cookies.

Vegan solutions aside, where is the real butter? Apparently, there’s a connection with global warming as the hotter the planet gets, the less milk and butter fat cows produce. And with our searing hot summers, the most energy a cow could have would be used to lie under a tree. Yet few cows are lying under trees because now there’s an Israeli cow shortage. (I knew about a water shortage and a housing shortage, but a cow shortage?)

Here’s another piece of the butter dilemma; in the last few years, Israelis are becoming more health conscious and are choosing butter over margarine. So all things considered, Israel has been forced to import butter.

To complicate the slippery situation even more, butter, as a basic staple, is subsidized in Israel – even for foreign importers - so it is impossible for suppliers to deliver the product and have it distributed at such low prices. The government refused to allow the price to be raised so we paid the price with no butter at all.

Some blame Tnuva, the largest supplier of dairy products in Israel, who now has a monopoly on butter. Seems like Tnuva wants to butter its bread on both sides - they hoped to increase the price but since they could not, they decided to allocate milk fat for more profitable uses like chocolate milk which is exported abroad. Imagine - Israeli choco is now spotted on grocery shelves in London whereas, in Israel, there is no butter to be found.

I gleefully called my daughter (the one with the butter in her fridge) to celebrate my butter bounty.

“Butter’s back for now,” she replied. “My friend also called to tell me she found butter and bought five bars.  I heard the government allowed Tnuva to increase the price of butter. How much did you pay for it?”

I had no idea the government changed its price policy and didn’t know what we paid for it. I now have butter in my fridge. I know that butter makes it better, but I no longer remember how.