Try asking for crème fraîche and you're likely to be directed to the table cream section of the dairy counter. Crème fraîche translates as fresh cream but it isnt fresh as we normally think of the word. Fresh for most of us means food that has had little processing and hasnt been frozen or cooked.
There are other processed creams. Sour cream and Devon are among the best known. Many recipes suggest substituting sour cream for crème fraîche but sour cream has less butter fat (about 14%) and a much sharper flavour. Devon cream is an extremely rich sweet cream and is available in gourmet shops.
Crème fraîche is different. It has been processed but in the most subtle of ways. There is a sweet slightly nutty taste and it is rich, rich as only thick heavy cream can be. This is because it starts as whipping cream but gets a slight kick from fermentation. It is rich but is neither as cloying as pure whipped cream, nor as tart as sour cream. Crème fraîche is heavenly on fresh fruit and a perfect partner stirred into pureed vegetables. It makes a stroganoff sing and unlike sour cream or yogurt, crème fraîche does not separate during cooking.
Unfortunately crème fraîche is only rarely available in Montreal. Instead, if you are persistent, you will come across cans of crème épaisse. This is made from crème fraîche and is imported from France. It is so thick that it is almost a cheese. It can be used in recipes calling for crème fraîche and substituted for mayonnaise in dressings. A large spoonful of crème épaisse mixed with a small dollop of Dijon mustard makes a wonderful spread. Crème épaisse is expensive, about $12 for 400 grams, but a little goes along way.
Fortunately, crème fraîche is not too hard to make. Take a cup of whipping cream and mix in a tablespoon of buttermilk. Heat this to about 100F (or 37.5C). Let it sit loosely covered with plastic wrap or wax paper in a warm corner of the kitchen for between 6 and 20 hours or until the crème fraîche has thickened. Then place it tightly covered in the refrigerator for several hours so that it chills and thickens further.
This is a wonderful holiday treat.