When it comes to pleasure, Jean-Yves Bordier knows a thing or two. Ruddy faced and cheerful, this trim, fifty-ish Breton with permanent laugh crinkles around his eyes makes what many consider to be the best butter in all of France. It’s a skill he learned from his father and grandfather, and to him it’s a matter of enjoyment. It’s also a matter of fat, and Bordier believes that, despite a slowly developing fear of fat among the French, more people might relax and enjoy his product if only they would learn how to eat it properly.
According to Bordier, the best way to consume butter is to place a small chunk on a piece of bread—or on the tip of a knife, finger or fork—and slip it gently onto the tongue. There, it begins to melt immediately, flooding the mouth with flavors that evoke spring flowers, warm sun, sea air and lightly toasted hazelnuts.
Talk to just about any French person, and he or she will tell you how much they love the stuff. “Butter. I love butter first thing in the morning when I spread it on my bread,” says Guy Savoy, one of Paris’s most vaunted three-star chefs. He considers Bordier’s butter so good that he puts it on the table of his restaurant. “To me, butter is that tartine with blueberry jam; it’s the afternoon snack with chocolate; it’s the finish of a sauce. Certain recipes simply cannot be made without butter.”
My friend and neighbor Edith Leroy, a dedicated gourmande, is extremely picky about her butter. “I buy only organic, churned butter, and my favorite way to eat it is spread thick on a slab of pain au levain, or sourdough bread, with my coffee in the morning,” she says. Neither Savoy nor Leroy mentions letting a small chunk slide around on the tongue, but that’s all right with Bordier.
At more than 17 pounds per capita per year, French consumption of butter is higher than that of any other people in the world. If you visit an average French supermarket, you are likely to find at least 15 brands and more than 30 varieties including unsalted, lightly salted, fully salted, fermier and baratte (see sidebar). Choose any one and it will be more delicious than just about any other butter you’ve ever tasted.
Terroir has a lot to do with it. The soil here is well taken care of and produces feed that makes cows happy, so the milk they produce is rich and delicious. Other possible factors are the size of French farms and herds—both tend to be small—and the ban on bovine growth hormones.
France has traditionally been divided into a butter half (the north) and an olive-oil half (the south). The boundaries are blurring, however, and olive oil is encroaching into northern kitchens as butter consumption drops. Still, the French remain fixated on butter, and only a country with such a fixation could have spawned a Bordier.
He is so passionate about his butter that each carefully wrapped piece purchased in his tiny Saint-Malo fromagerie is cut from a freshly made motte, a large mound that is shaped by hand with wooden paddles. He ships to customers around the country on the honor system and, because he believes in the personal touch, regularly visits most of the stores and restaurants that carry his product. On weekends, he can be found at local and regional fairs passing out bread topped with a thick slice of butter (placed, not spread), and generally preaching the gospel of good butter, both his and that of his more industrial colleagues.
The biggest difference between Bordier’s butter and theirs is a subtle combination of flavor and texture. “My butter is made slowly,” he says as he moves neatly around his laboratory, where white-coated employees are using small, ridged wooden paddles to turn mounds of butter into fanciful shapes destined for some of the greatest tables in the world. He takes a moment to joke with them, solve a problem or two and make a few pats of butter himself, as if to prove that he can still do it. “Industrially made butter—which I’m not criticizing, mind you, because it is delicious too—is made quickly, in a rather violent process that has to do with rapidly changing its temperature,” he says.
To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses nothing more than time-honored techniques and the best possible cream he can get, which comes from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. That the milk is organic is extremely important to Bordier but not something that he feels should be promoted. “I don’t advertise that my butter is organic,” he says. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the only labels that should be on foods are those that indicate that they are not organic. After all, organic is the best, so we shouldn’t have to point out that we’re making the best. What needs pointing out is when things aren’t the best.”
The milk is taken to a dairy and skimmed of cream. The cream matures for about 36 hours so that its flavor can develop, then is churned for about an hour and a half in special machines reserved for Bordier. At that point, the butter has separated from the lait ribot, or buttermilk, which is drained from the churn and replaced with ice water. The butter is churned for another hour or so before being transported to Bordier’s butter-making laboratory. There, it is kneaded by a wooden cylinder at a very slow speed for 15 to 30 minutes. “In the summer, when the cows are grazing on grass, the butter is naturally tender and requires less kneading,” Bordier points out. “In the winter it requires more.”
A young man supervising the kneading process sprinkles fine sea salt over the golden mass that is being slowly folded and rolled in front of him. “This type of kneading uses traditional techniques, the same gestures my grandfather used when he made butter,” Bordier says. “In today’s jargon, I call kneading ‘improvement.’ I’m taking wonderful butter and improving it through slow, careful kneading. The salt ‘attacks’ the butter and chases water from it; the kneading takes it to a level of tender suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve.”
Still, while no one else makes butter the way Bordier does, the panoply and quality of butter choices available to the French consumer is mind-bogglingly delicious. And despite the perennial French concern with their figures and their weight—and the encroachment of olive oil into the inner sanctum of the French kitchen—butter retains its special place in France as a favorite food and a favorite ingredient.
Fromagerie Jean-Yves Bordier is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 3:30 P.M. to 7:30 P.M. In August, open Sunday and Monday mornings. 9 rue de l’Orme, Saint-Malo (inside the old city); Tel. 33/2-99-40-88-79.