The Scythians, a most barbaric group of nomadic tribes, were the first people to make butter which they used chiefly for medicinal purposes. They had learned how to do this whilst still living in Mesopotamia. So important was the manufacture of butter that a specific category of slaves were appointed to do only that. According to legend these poor slaves had their eyes removed so that nothing would distract them from churning the butter, however, there is absolutely no proof of this. To get back to France which is, after all, under discussion here, the Gauls (image of a statue below) were the first to use butter for cooking (except for the Scandinavian countries) in Europe, but it was the Normans that introduced it to them. The Normans, in turn, had learned this from the Danes, who had all but perfected its use as an essential ingredient in cooking. The Scythians, having left Mesopotamia (current day Iran) lived far north in the Russian areas, so it would have been easy for them to send it to the Scandinavian countries as they were expert horsemen.
Before butter was produced and distributed in the format we know today, it was mrketed locally and produced at home. Then the Gauls brought it (often coloured with marigold flowers), to the markets wrapped in herbs or sorrel leaves. It would then be stored in earthernware pots and covered with salted water. Soon the colouring was forbidden because even in the days of the Gauls, it’s production was regulated and, for example, could not be sold near fish stalls. Later, the Catholic Church forbade the use of butter during Lent, unless of course a generous contribution was made to the “butter chest” which, thanks to people like the Archbishop Georges d’Ambroise provided funds to build one of the most exquisite cathedrals in France, the Rouen Cathedral. I have a special fascination for Rouen, because my son, Richardt, was named for Richard Lionheart whose tomb, image below, can be found there. His heart lies buried here.
It is interesting to note, though it has nothing to do with butter, that his bowels were buried inside the Chateau of Châlus-Chabrol from whose walls the crossbow bolt that killed him was fired and his bodily remains were buried next to his dad at the Fontevraud Abbey. Should you want to visit it, he is the one lying on top of his tomb with his name on the side. I have never understood why his bowels, specifically, had to be at Châlus-Chabrol. Now that I think of it, to say that the French do not waste is an understatement.
Unlike in Africa and Asia where butter was (and still is I believe) made from the milk of buffalo, camel, goats and donkeys, the French favoured cows, sheep and goats milk. Below an image of cow’s milk butter on the left and goat’s milk butter on the right.
Butter, as the French know it today, has only been made in this way for a little over 100 years. Thanks, to the phylloxera that destroyed the vines in France, many devastated wine farmers had no option but to turn into dairy farmers. Being French, they excelled at it and the first cooperative was opened in 1888 at which point pasteurization and selective breeding flourished because the Atlantic coast’s damp weather was perfect for the growth of lush vegetation so necessary for feed.
In Echiré (north east of Niort) the local inhabitants founded a cooperative in 1894 and to this day milk is collected from the local farms by their own trucks. As soon as the cream has been separated, milk ferment is added (1 to 2 %) and then left to mature, biologically, for about 18 hours (give or take a few) at 14 C. It is beaten in massive, strong, teak churns which then breaks down the membranes of these little fat globules so that the butter fat is released and coagulates into even bigger lumps which are called the butter grains. As soon as these grains are the size of peas, the almost fat free buttermilk is drained off and whatever remains of the buttermilk is rinsed off with fresh spring water to prevent it from tasting like cheese. It’s kneaded so that the grains produce a uniform mass with approximately a 16 percent moisture content. The finished Echiré butter is wrapped in gold foil and put in its characteristic small basket. I am almost sure that nobody forgets the taste of this butter. Ever. Whilst there are dozens of incredibly good butters in France – from places like Normandy, Charentes-Poitou and a many other areas – it is the Echiré that I never forget.
In closing, I have to do something I have never done before and that is to recommend a book. Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This is, probably, the best read I have had in while. He puts clarifies age old questions, poses new ones and puts food into perspective in a way that no other book ever has. Easy to read, excellently researched and fascinating, the book brings up an interesting point relating to butter.
I have always been fascinated by the fact that that butter, containing at least 15% water, could seem to be a solid. He explains it so simply, and I quote:
Because of the crystals that increase with cooling and interlock with one another; Scraped with a knife, butter seems to soften, not because it is heated but because the crystals are separated.
To have an idea how these discoveries can be used in cooking, try testing split crystallization yourself. Melt the butter and skim off the solids as they form, just as the physical chemists did. You will then be able to manufacture your own butters by mixing proportions of solids and liquids and in this way obtain the specific texture appropriate to a particular dish.
I am including some recipes again, however, please note that these are my interpretations of the French recipes and in most cases, I have altered them as I see fit.
FLAVOURED BUTTERS OF PROVENCE
BEURRE à L’AIL (GARLIC BUTTER)
100 g butter
4 cloves garlic crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 lemon, zest and juice
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pound garlic, parsley and zest with the butter in a mortar. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and a little olive oil to create a smooth butter.
BEURRE AU BASILIC (FRESH BASIL BUTTER)
100 g butter
Fresh basil leaves to taste
Salt to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Pound and blend as above
There are many other possibilities, like saffron (au safran), black olive (aux olives), anchovy (aux anchois), almond (d’amandes), crab or prawn (de crabe ou de cervettes), hazlenut (de noisettes), Montepellier (de Montpellier), lobster (de homard), red peppers (aux poivrons rouge) or a myriad of others. All recipes available on request.
I recently dug out this Catalan recipe and reminded myself of a visit to Perpignon where I swore I wanted to live for the rest of my life. I have done that a few times in my life, usually influenced by the food of the region and I will show you why. One of the most astonishing deserts in Catalonia is the mei i mato (goats milk cream cheese sprinkled with honey) which requires no recipe and so to close, an unusual
TATIN D’AUBERGINES AUX POMMES
4 apples (golden delicious), peeled and cored & sliced into 12 pieces
2 aubergines (eggplants), peeled & thinly sliced
100 g butter
100 g sugar
1 egg yolk
Frozen flaky pastry
Preheat the oven to 200
Thaw the pastry dough.
Melt the butter in a round non-stick baking pan and then add the sugar gradually allowing it to caramelize. Remove from the heat and arrange in alternative slices of apple and aubergines in a circle over the caramel on the bottom of the pan. Scatter small pieces of butter over this and then make a second layer of apple and eggplant.
Place in the oven for about 15 minutes until lightly browned and roll the pastry dough over the tart.
Brush with egg yolk and bake for 35 minutes. Turn upside down and serve so that the pastry forms the base.
The types of butter commonly produced in France are:
- Farmhouse butter – usually made from unpasteurized milk and naturally matured cream. Always prepared in the area of origin and under the strictest of strict hygiene controls. My absolute favourite butter.
- Pasteurized butter – this is made in factories, officially monitored and not my favourite.
- Dairy butter – also pasteurized but not good enough for the Ministry of Agriculture’s approval and is sold as table butter or cooking butter. Watch out for these.
- Sweet butter – this is made from creams with low acidity and is a fragile and uncommon butter. It does not keep well at all!
- EEC butter – this butter is purchased by the governments when too much butter is produced in Europe. It is deep-frozen for no more than a year and placed on the market when demand is high and the prices are then lower than the cheapest butter. There is nothing wrong with it except that it will not keep for more than a week.
- Imported butter – usually from Denmark or Holland, it is excellent butter and usually whiter than the French butter. The country of origin must always be indicated as this is a legal requirement.
- Restored butter – made from really bad quality cream, reblended with bicarbonate of soda for deacidification and is very rare. If you see it, avoid it.
- Salted butter – this contains about 1,5 to 2 g of butter per 100 g. It actually improves both taste and texture of the food when used in cooking.
- Regional butter – produced only in the specific regions using cream from the local dairy cows, thus preserving and ensuring distinctive flavours, textures and colours.
- Concentrated butter – again known as cooking butter and containing 96% butterfat and a low moisture content. Can be used for frying and it does not decompose at high temperatures. It keeps well.
Hope this helps!