As the French love affair with butter goes from strength-to-strength, we explore the techniques and traditions that go into the artisan craft of its production.
While butter may be a relative latecomer to the artisan food movement compared with the boom in traditional breads and cheeses, in the west of France, things are changing. The techniques and traditions of butter makers remain largely the same as their predecessors, but bespoke butters and eclectic ranges are coming straight from the brands themselves. From dairy farms to production sites and points of sale, we explore why French butter is as remarkable for its diversity as it is for its flavour.
The dairy farms
First things first, good butter begins with the cows, as it’s essentially their diet that dictates the quality of milk produced. This explains why the most famous regions for butter in France are Normandy and Brittany – as well as the petite villages of Poitiers and La Rochelle – where rainfall is rife and the cows feast on luscious greenery on a daily basis.
Nowhere is this more obvious than at GAEC AX Cornuault. Originally established in 1969 as a cattle farm, the third-generation business began producing milk in 1992. Today, it’s part of the Cooperative Laitière de la Sèvre, a collection of around 60 farms all within a 50 km circumference who all work together to keep the industry running.
“The climate of France is great for its natural pastures which are green most of the year, from which the cows feed,” says Francois Robin, French dairy specialist. “Combined with the fact that all our farms are small and run by families, sometimes through several generations – it allows for a natural high-quality milk, which then results in very tasty butter.”
With around 90 cows on-site, each producing around 10,000 litres of milk per year, the grandson-father-grandfather dream team see this as a lifestyle rather than a job, and work around the clock to ensure a seamless and, most importantly, sanitary milking process resulting in some of the freshest produce in the business.
The secret? Peace and quiet. According to the farmers, the calmer the cows during the process, the better the quality of milk – something which is taken extremely seriously at GAEC AX Cornuault. Once the milk is collected, it’s stored in tanks at temperatures between two and four degrees before it’s ready to be distributed to the production sites.
The traditionalists: Beurre d’Echiré
One of the most exclusive butters found in many of the world’s most famous restaurants, Echiré butter, is handmade in a small pocket of Western France. Its appeal lies in its delicate, creamy and distinct flavour which is, in part, due to the fact that – since 1894 – it’s always been made from milk from the Cooperative Laitière de la Sèvre.
Echiré is loved by a number of the world’s best pastry chefs – from New York and Paris to London – who favour it for its high butterfat percentage (84 percent compared to 82 percent) and high melting point, which make it perfect for delicacies such as croissants or puff pastry. It also boasts AOC status, which ensures that all dairy farms that produce the milk are held to the highest of standards.
With 170 employees across two sites, production levels are on the smaller side. The cooperative makes 950 tonnes each year, which is just 0.2 percent of France’s annual butter production, but the team believes this just emphasises quality over quantity. Indeed, it’s the butter of choice for Dubai’s Burj al Arab, which prides itself on offering the most luxurious dining experiences in the city.
It’s here where tradition is key, and Echiré’s production methods haven’t changed in a century. Milk is skimmed using the original machinery, butter is still 100 percent churned in wooden barrels and the recipe has remained unchanged for the last 115 years – this is a company dead set on ensuring the old ways of making butter don’t die, and the main reason why it’s so universally loved. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the French like to keep this for themselves, consuming 85 percent of the Echiré butter that’s in the market.
The big players: Paysan Breton
While Echiré is a great example of butter made on a smaller scale, Payson Breton – produced at the cooperative dairy company Laïta in Brittany – is one of the bigger players, with more than 7,000 dairy farmers in its chain. As with Echiré, the focus here is on happy, healthy and well-fed cows, meaning animal welfare is a priority, with milk collected from small, family-run farms with cows that are fed mainly of fresh grass and hay.
But that’s where the similarities end, as around 5-80 tonnes of Paysan Breton butter is produced per day, and the milk collected is also transformed into butter, cheese, fermented milk and the brand’s famous crêpes. Want to try it for yourself? You’ll find it at Carrefour, Spinneys, Lulu, Choithrams and the Union Co-op.
The haute couture creator: Le Beurre Bordier
For those who are after a more personalised, artisan approach to butter-making, look no further than Bordier. Hailing from Brittany and in production since 2005, this rich, creamy butter is made by hand and customised based on specific orders placed by chefs and restaurants. From salt rate and shape to their own personal stamp, it’s all about beauty, and no request is too hard. It comes at a cost, though – the craftsmen create in one year what Paysan Breton produce in five days.
The process starts by taking big blocks of butter and rolling them out on a wooden “kneeder” before the chef begins working it by hand, constantly checking the texture and adapting the recipe until it’s perfect. Here, salt is added to make the butter more malleable and, once it’s well-mixed, the cutting and shaping begins.
From raspberry, seaweed and yuzu to Madagascar vanilla and garlic and herb, it’s these ever-changing recipes that make Le Beurre Bordier so popular, and today it is shipped to 28 countries worldwide, with Dubai as one of its biggest markets.
So, what can we expect from the future of French butter? “I think we’ll keep our main assets: grass-fed cows that produce high quality milk and haute-couture productions for special occasions,” explains Francois Robin. “Not only is butter now recognised as a good source of lipids and vitamins, it’s also a strong source of pleasure. Production will certainly increase, as will consumers’ interest. I think we’ll also see people going back to basics, and using more wood and traditional tools for local and organic productions.”
Why work in a cooperative?
The aim of cooperatives is to ensure that there’s always a market for the milk produced by its members to guarantee the future of its farms and promote regional development. The work can’t be relocated elsewhere, meaning profitability for all farmers is increased.
Farmers are also involved in the future of the industry and play a role in decision-making. The cooperative support the brands with everyday management, advice, raining and information on good practice, meaning teamwork is vital from start to finish.
Salt of the earth
A stone’s throw away from these production sites to the west of Loire-Atlantique and the showcase for Guérande salt nationwide are the Terre de Del salt marshes, where the salt is 100 percent natural, unrefined, unwashed and totally additive-free. Harvested with traditional know-how and ferociously-guarded techniques, over 300 salt-makers work tirelessly to create both Fleur de Sel and its renowned grey salt, which infuse the delicious butters created throughout the country.
Paris is always a good idea
If you think that butter production is solely reserved for the lesser-known outer regions of France, think again, as cheese-maker Paul Zindy has recently opened his very own milk transformation unit in the heart of Paris, resurrecting artisan cheese-making in the capital.
Producing everything from raw milk cheese to cream and yoghurts, Laiterie La Chapelle prides itself on being a transparent workshop which shares its processes with consumers through huge glass windows. Promoting virtuous and sustainable production practices, it may be one of the only workshops in Paris that make cheese from local milk, but if Paul’s plans are anything to go by, it won’t be the last.