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King of the Table

Breton Butter Lore

Brittany’s butter reputation has endured since the Middle Ages, and Bretons have sold their butter to the rest of France since the 1500’s. We are renowned for it, much as other parts of France are renowned for their cheese. Brittany’s bountiful green pastures, abundant milk, and its salt marshes combine to produce a salted butter that preserves well.

The problem of preservation forced people to keep butter in salted water, and butter containers, or Beurriers, appeared on tables as early as the 1200’s. Various types were made of porcelain, ceramic or metal. By the turn of the nineteenth century, a butter dish was designed which is still used today. It is a crockery jar with a recessed cover. You put salt water in the jar and the butter goes in the recessed lid. When the butter is not being used, you flip the cover, so the butter is dipped in the salt water.

In Brittany, you may hear people say “Au Bon Beurre Sale,” literally, “To good salted butter,” as if it were a salutation. We say this when the butter is placed on the table, ready to complement the other dishes being served. Sometimes it is the call of a farmer selling his butter in the marketplace.

At the market, the butter sellers were proud to display butter that had not been pinched.  The buyer could always ask for a taste; the farmer used a needle or hatpin to extract a pinch of butter for the customer to taste. If the buyer did not like the butter enough to buy it, the pinch mark remained, and the butter would be sold for a lesser price. That was always a great diversion for us kids to watch.

In the grocery store, the butter was always wrapped in parchment paper. As a small child, I glued my eyes to the grocery store window, looking at the large decorated butter mounds on display. I would watch the storekeeper cut into it when a customer came in, as she delicately wrapped it up in the crispy parchment paper. Storekeepers were proud of where they got their butter. Often they kept their source a secret.

We Bretons are good customers for butter, for we know how it is made well.

Breton pastry chefs always cook with salted butter. It gives the famous biscuits of Pont-Aven, which are shortbread-like cookies, their unique and heavenly flavor. They seem to melt on the tongue.

For fine dining, restaurants carve their own butter, use butter molds or piped softened butter using a pastry bag, in shape reminiscent of the past, to make butter the “king of the table” again.

Even today, I always have butter on the table. Too much butter, like too much of anything, is unwise—but in moderation, butter is good.

From choosing where to pasture the cows, through setting the dining table, butter linked me and my family with the land where we lived. The art of making and cooking with butter became a part of my being—and wherever I live, butter keeps me connected to home.

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