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King of the Table:
Growing up with Butter in Brittany


The lush, rolling countryside where I now live in Southwestern Wisconsin reminds me of Brittany, the region of France where I grew up. When I was growing up, Brittany’s green pastures, crossed by numerous brooks, were dotted with pie noirs cows, whose milk gives the gloriously yellow Breton butter. The pie noirs resemble the black and white Holsteins we see in the states, but produce more milk. These days the Bretons are making a big effort to bring the pie noir breed back, after years of decline.

 

It is said that, “As long there is milk in Brittany, the Bretons will churn!” We Bretons say of ourselves that the milk of human kindness is churned into butter. You don’t need to put a buttercup under my chin to find out if I like butter.

At least once a week, we made butter on our farm. First, we put fresh milk through a separator to get the cream. The cream was left to mature in big glazed earthenware pots in the cool cellar for at least forty-eight hours. Next came the churning—agitating the cream to bring the fat together until it turns into a solid butter mass and separates, leaving the lean buttermilk behind.

In my family it was the younger children’s job to churn the butter. This meant my younger sister and brother and me. Churning is simple but tedious, so we passed the time by making a game out of it. We devised a system to count how many turns each one of us had to take, so the churning was split evenly. We looked through a little glass window on top of the butter churn to see which one of us got the curd to turn into a mass.

We then removed the butter from the pots and wrapped it in a very heavy linen cloth so the buttermilk could drain off. That evening, we would have steamy boiled potatoes with a large bowl of buttermilk for dinner. Some of us liked this dish more than the others.

Once the butter was drained, my mother or older sister would wash the mass with very cold well water to remove any excess milk left in it. Then we removed the water from the butter by working it, bit by bit, from one side of a bowl to the other. This task was done painstakingly, by hand, with a butter spoon that I still have in my own kitchen today. Some households were known to leave water in the mounds of butter they planned to sell, as it would make the mounds heavier. My mother’s butter was always worked until it felt smooth, with very few pearls of water. She was known for her good yellow butter.

Next, we added sea salt, working it into the butter with the same spoon. Finally, we formed the butter into a mound weighing as much as thirty pounds.

From that mound, smaller mounds of butter (a half-pound to a pound) were rounded out and decorated. To set decorated butter on the table was a sign of respect and hospitality for our guests.

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