The French Butter Crisis Is Weirder than It Looks
“I think that as far as quality artisanal butter is concerned, there are very, very few of us on the market who can deliver large quantities.”
It’s no surprise that the French, with their half-a-baguette-a-day habit and seemingly endless supply of pastries, are the world’s biggest consumers of butter: on average, some eight kilos per person every year. Paris’s favorite sandwich is simply ham and butter; the French call a black eye a “black-buttered eye,” translated; they even replace the expression “have your cake and eat it too” with “have the butter and the money from the butter” (and, depending on who you’re talking to, something a bit dirty with the milkmaid).
But if you take a look at French supermarket shelves these days, you’ll see quite a sorry sight: 30 percent of the demand for butter is going unfulfilled, in what French newspaper the Figaro is calling the worst butter shortage since the end of World War II.
While the French were quick to blame the lack of supply on growing interest in French pastries in China, the true cause is a bit more complicated.
We’re only feeling the heat from this shortage now, but it actually began with the abolition of the EU’s milk quota system back in 2015, a decision intended to help European dairy producers perform better on the international market. A short glut of dairy (nowhere near that which resulted in the lakes of milk and mountains of butter rumored to dot the European countryside after the imposition of the quotas in 1984) was followed by an overcorrection which, when compounded with poor weather conditions, saw France’s butter production drop 3 percent between 2015 and 2016.
Add to this the fact that much industrial French butter is made with frozen cream shipped in from New Zealand, and you have a sizeable problem on your hands: Butter prices in New Zealand have skyrocketed, as not only butter, but whole milk, are met with renewed interest thanks to the prevalence of diets rich in animal fats like Paleo and keto—and French supermarkets don’t want to pay the piper (to the tune of 7,000 euros per ton this summer, compared to 2,500 euros per ton this past April).
French farmers are taking their business elsewhere, leaving French breakfast tables butterless.
“We’re being led to believe that there’s a butter shortage, but it’s really the fault of the retail establishments who don’t want to pay the real price for butter,” Nicolas Beets, a milk producer in the Loiret region, tells franceinfo. “We have butter, but it’s being sold out of France.”
“I’m one of the people fighting for butter to be more expensive. It’s a lot of milk, it’s a lot of work, and we’ve gotten into a bad habit in France of buying inexpensive grocery store butter.”
But the rising price of butter has been a long time coming, French cheesemaker Pierre Coulon tells MUNCHIES.
“Butter demands a lot, a lot of milk,” he says: some 100 liters of milk for a mere 4.5 kilos of butter. “I’m one of the people fighting for butter to be more expensive. It’s a lot of milk, it’s a lot of work, and we’ve gotten into a bad habit in France of buying inexpensive grocery store butter.”
The grocery store butter he’s referring to is the kind that most French people are accustomed to buying. In fact, a blind test performed by l’Express that tested 18 butters across the board gave industrial Noisy Elle & Vire butter top billing. But more expensive artisanal butters are certainly gaining in popularity, both in and outside of France.
Isigny Sainte-Mère is a Normandy-based dairy company producing one of only three French butters with an AOP label: the certification that epitomizes that French ideal of terroir, which links a food product to the place and traditions by which it is produced (and makes it illegal, for example, for winemakers outside of the Champagne region to call their product anything other than “sparkling wine”).
Normandy, which is known for its rainy climate and lush green meadows, is the perfect terroir for very happy cows and excellent cream, butter, and cheese. After all, unlike many American butters, which are typically made with milk from corn- or grain-fed cows, French butter is always from grass-fed cattle, lending it a fresh flavor and a naturally yellow color—no additives required.
“In the winter, the color will be slightly less yellow,” says Benoit de Vitton of Isigny Sainte-Mère. “Spring is when you get the yellower butter.”
Isigny also gets a bit of help from its cows: a Norman breed known for producing less milk that’s nevertheless richer than that of some of its counterparts. Richer grass-fed milk isn’t the only thing that makes French butter better: the finished product is also higher in fat—usually between 81 and 83 percent compared to American butter’s roughly 80 percent.
While many American producers have started making “European-style” butters with up to 86 percent fat, you still might not get that rich flavor of a true French butter because of one crucial step: all French butter, from industrial to artisanal, is cultured.
Culturing butter is similar to culturing yogurt. Bacteria are allowed to develop, lending the butter a slightly sour taste and longer shelf life. While industrial butter producers do this by adding synthetic acids to the cream, AOP butters are cultured naturally.
“We don’t use chemicals or citric acid to trigger fermentation,” explains de Vitton, noting that the slow, traditional fermentation lasts between 12 and 16 hours.
AOP butter may be a mark of quality, but when you ask the top French chefs the butter they prefer, the answer is nearly always the same: Bordier. The brand is named for Jean-Yves Bordier, who became an artisan butter-maker in Brittany’s Saint-Malo in 1985. He quickly mastered the 19th-century technique of hand-churning and kneading butter, and his product became the name to know, appearing on the shelves of specialty cheese shops and on the tables of some of France’s best chefs as beurre d’accueil or “welcome butter,” the butter served with bread before the meal begins.
According to brand rep Aurélie Rousseaux-Gubri, Bordier was one of the pioneers of these butters, creating them to suit the demands of individual chefs, from size, to shape, to precise salt content, even infusing them with everything from seaweed to yuzu to Basque Espelette pepper.
While Bordier’s name appears everywhere, from Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon’s famous buttery mashed potatoes to Le Cordon Bleu Executive Chef Eric Briffard’s legendary cooking classes, Rousseaux-Gubri is quick to note that not all French chefs prefer Bordier.
“Some prefer butters from their region or local farmer. Others prefer an AOP butter,” she says. “The chefs who prefer our butter prefer it because it has a consistent quality.”
"The last two weeks have been crazy for us because some supermarkets got scared, and so people went to cheesemongers or to our shops to stock up."
Known for the techniques of long fermentation, hand-kneading, and slow churning, Bordier has the savoir-faire of a small artisanal producer but the clout to provide its product to sellers and chefs all over France.
“I think that as far as quality artisanal butter is concerned, there are very, very few of us on the market who can deliver large quantities,” says Rousseaux-Gubri. Bordier was purchased 18 years ago by Triballat Noyal, an industrial food company, affording the brand several opportunities for expansion. Four years ago, Bordier established a presence on the American market.
“Butter is fashionable now,” says Rousseaux-Gubri, citing specifically the 2016 article in TIME denouncing the long-time fear of saturated fats. “We’re still talking about it insofar as it concerns the rehabilitation of butter, both in the US and in France.”
And when it comes to the current butter shortage, Bordier has been spared thanks to its artisanal nature.
“We’ve had agreements with farmers for years, and those agreements have been respected, and our farmers are very, very loyal,” says Rousseaux-Gubri. “So we’re not at all at risk as far as our normal supply.”
She’s careful to note, however, that if the dearth of industrial butter continues, Bordier is in no position to replace it.
“The last two weeks have been crazy for us because some supermarkets got scared, and so people went to cheesemongers or to our shops to stock up,” she says. “If this continues, we won’t be able to meet the growing demand.”
But to some, even Bordier isn’t quite the crème de la crème of French butter.
“Bordier is a pretty neat brand, because it did something great: put butter back on restaurant tables and on the tables of the French,” says Coulon. “It’s really made by hand, it’s very, very fresh… but it’s no raw milk butter.”
This, Coulon says, is the true white whale of the French butter industry: while most French butter is pasteurized, raw milk butter offers a rich, unique flavor that’s unlike any other. That said, as Coulon notes, “It’s very, very hard to find.”
Hopefully that won't be the case for all of France's many wondrous butters for much longer.