Why do the French make the best butter?

Whilst following the current dispute over milk prices it surprised me to learn that one of the reasons/excuses given was the falling value of cream.  It seems amazing to one who grew up squabbling over who was going to get the top of the milk on their cereal that what was once considered the best part is now virtually valueless because so many people buy their milk skimmed or semi-skimmed.

Before I continue with this topic a disclaimer; I am not a dairy farmer, just a consumer who loves good food and deeply respects those who make it.  I know that there are farmers who resent those who are not, and so struggle to understand all of the issues, even expressing their opinions, but let me say that I am happily paying £1.80 a litre for milk, i.e. six times what most farmers are receiving, albeit this includes delivery to my door.

If I have understood correctly, the general view seems to be that farmers cannot be blamed if the processors, to whom most farmers sell their milk, are not finding alternative outlets for the excess cream.  Meanwhile we continue to import a third of all our butter, which is made from cream.  I’m not looking to apportion blame here, but surely butter represents a business opportunity?  And when I examine my own buying habits I find that despite my commitment to buying local, I too am guilty of buying imported (French) butter.  The reason?  It is difficult to find British butter of the same quality.  This applies at all price levels, from the top, artisan-made, Echire for spreading on your toast, to the factory-made President butter that I use for making pastry.  There are some exceptions, good enough for general purpose, and a handful of handmade butters from top Cheddar cheesemakers’ Montgomery’s and Keen’s as well as Priors Clotted Cream Butter.  But these artisan butters are hard to find.

The quality of French butter, particularly that from Normandy, is usually attributed to superior, species rich, grazing but I can’t believe that we don’t have grazing to match that.  From speaking to those who do hand-make butter, including those who have judged it at agricultural shows, the most common pitfall is failing to remove all of the buttermilk, as this contains most of the lactic acid which, if retained, tastes bitter and quickly turns rancid.  It also adversely affects the texture, which should break cleanly.  Adding salt improves the keeping qualities as well as enhancing flavour.  But whilst we seem to have grasped the fact that quality sea-salt tastes best, we don’t seem to be able to incorporate it as evenly as the French.

I appreciate that not all the butter that is imported is done so for reasons of quality.  Cost comes into the equation for many people but I repeat my assertion that there are quality differences across the pricing structure.

We import an even larger percentage of our cheese (50%) and here there is really no excuse. Whilst there are outstanding cheeses from many countries around the world, and I wouldn’t want to exclude them from my diet entirely, British cheeses can more than hold their own and I am proud to serve an entirely British cheeseboard on any occasion.

There are also an increasing number of dairy farmers who make their own ice cream, and whilst little of this is at a truly artisan level it certainly beats any imported mass-produced ice cream.  This reinforces my belief that we should be capable of making good butter if we put our minds to it.  I don’t think farmers can, or should, rely on the processors to do this.  In my humble opinion the only future for dairy farming in this country is for farmers to take control of the entire production chain, right through to selling direct to customers.  The place I would recommend to anyone wishing to take this step is the School of Artisan Food http://www.schoolofartisanfood.org, but interestingly I note that whilst there are several cheese making courses and a couple for ice cream, there are none for butter.  But I am sure that if the demand is there they will find the people who can teach you how to make it well.

3 thoughts on “Why do the French make the best butter?

  1. I was amazed to find this page on the web, as a ‘real foodie’ having established farmers markets etc I always have a problem in France with their butter, it is, (to me) sour, and very quickly turns rancid, the oil separating from the solids very quickly. I have tried both Demi sal and Doux from many areas, and many different brands, I invariably end up throwing it out. France is the only country in the world where I have experienced it, and have had no problems with butter anywhere else in the world.

  2. Haha, John. French butter is a less ‘sophisticated’ butter (ie less mucked-about – it is not made from pasteurised cream) that has a more sophisticated taste. You remind me of those people who prefer Bird’s mellow coffee to an espresso or English chocolate Easter eggs to continental dark chocolate.

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