Of the many wonderful foods that can seduce you here in France, one that caught me by surprise was the butter. Yes, butter, which you may think is pretty much the same everywhere. But non, mon amis French butter is out of this world.
Specifically, the butter that comes from the Brittany – Normandy area and has sea salt crystals embedded in it. Oooh la la!
Why is it so great? Well, the cows in Normandy graze on the sweet green grass there and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.
Norman cows are raised only for dairy production. They roam freely and eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup flower yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.
This is used to produce butter that’s irresistible for two reasons: first, it often has a higher fat content (87%) than American butter (80%) and, second, it’s cultured differently.
Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it’s churned. This allows bacteria to form and sugar to convert to lactic acid, resulting in a creamier, more “buttery” taste.
In contrast, American-produced butter uses only pasteurized milk cream, which has no cultures, and does not ferment. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.
Before industrialization, all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and delicious.
Today, mass production does not allow for skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes to take place. Cream is instead spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid-producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter has a fuller, and to some, a “nuttier”, flavor.
And now, for the crowning touch: sea salt. Brittany, a large peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the west and the English Channel to the north, is a region richly endowed with natural sea salt beds and marshes. These have been cultivated for thousands of years, starting during the Iron Age when Celtic tribes occupied the area.
The most famous of these areas is particularly prized for its high-quality sea salt and fleur de sel, a flaky, light salt skimmed off the top of the lagoons. These crystalline flakes are suffused randomly throughout the butter, where they remain intact, creating a savory bite and a little crunchy surprise with each taste.
This is not cooking butter and should be reserved for use at the table on baked goods, crepes, pancakes, and simple pasta dishes. You may be able to find this in the imported foods section of your grocery store – if so, give it a try. Just don’t blame me if you can never again be satisfied with Land O’ Lakes!