Friday, May 3, 2013

Passionate About Butter


When you meet someone who is so happily, passionately, and energetically involved in their work, you can't help but be interested. Given that the subject of this class was butter, I thought (a) there wouldn't be much to talk about, and (b) since I can't eat it and it's not cheese I wouldn't get much out of the class. But I was wrong. Jean-Yves Bordier knows the history, theory, and technique behind both cheese and butter, and the milk industry in general, and he is such a vibrant and entertaining speaker that we were all engaged in the discussions for the entire class period, and even beyond. I wouldn't have minded another two or three hours with M. Bordier, who along with a handful of other instructors had much more useful information to provide than class time to provide it in.

With ten kilos of freshly-made butter as a backdrop, M. Bordier told us a bit about his background; he started making butter in 1985, but has family roots in cheesemaking. Then he talked about the history of butter, saying that the usual "milk was put in skin bags and trotted around on animals all day" theory doesn't really hold up, because butter is made from cream, and that implies more sophistication and stability than you'd get from a typical nomadic herding group. Skins full of milk shaken up for several hours on the back of a donkey or what have you will get you small clumps of milk solids in a watery buttermilk/whey base but that's about it. In any event, he says, at first butter wasn't something people ate, but instead a cosmetic product, or the base for medical ointments. The Vikings in the far north and the Egyptians in the far south ate butter, we were told, but the Greeks and Romans preferred to use it to cure dry skin. 14th-century France was divided between the butter-loving northern regions and the olive-oil-using south, and around 1480, he said, Anne de Bretagne sued the Church for the right to eat butter during Lent (in general all meat and dairy products were off limits). Most people in 17th-century Paris couldn't afford butter, although people in villages and on farms would make their own. The French Revolution, according to M. Bordier, was a matter of liberté, égalité, fraternité, beurré as butter became less a noble's dish, churned by Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles, and more accessible to the general public. Butter was, we were told, originally sold wrapped in cabbage leaves, but today his company uses waxed paper. He doesn't approve of the industrial methods of forming and packaging butter because the pressure applied to the product as it goes through the machines breaks down the butter. All of the butter made at the Morbier facility is hand-shaped with wooden paddles, and individually wrapped.


We got to make our own butter, a fun process that involved shaking jars of cream until we could hear that they didn't make splashing noises any more, and then continuing to shake until they did again, as the cream turned to whipped cream and then coalesced into a ball of buttery yellow. At his facility, the process of making butter takes four days, starting with 36 hours or so of fermentation of the cream. After the initial separation into butter and whey, the whey is removed and replaced with an equal amount of ice water, which adds moisture back to the butterfat. It's set aside for 24 hours to develop its flavor. The next day it's kneaded, then salted, then formed and wrapped. Industrial butter-making compresses this process down to 6 hours. However, as M. Bordier stressed, he can't really object completely to the industrial production, because it means that everyone is able to buy butter (of lower quality, but still).

He showed "la graisse de Cherbourg" (or "la graisse Normande"), a product dating back to the Middle Ages made of lard flavored with herbs and spices, a precursor to butter; it's now being made again according to a 15th-century recipe by someone in Normandy, and sold in jars. And he told us about innovations in fat dating 500 years later, the "stick du matin" where butter is sold in glue-stick format to spare you the ennui of having to wash a knife. We learned that pastrymakers prefer using the white dry butter from the Poitou-Charentes area, rather than the yellow moist butter from the northern plains. That's what he uses to make the flavored butters used by chefs, seasoned with yuzu or smoked paprika, algae or vanilla.

We got to taste all of the flavored butters, and then M. Bordier handed out gift packs to each of us, with several pounds of butter and some buttery caramel candies inside handy insulated bags, thus sealing his position as one of the instructors we enjoyed the most. I wish more of the classes had been as merry and hands-on, and I hope to be able to visit M. Bordier's facility soon, to see his equally merry crew in action. Check out this video of butter production set to music - how can you not enjoy a job like that?

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