How far would you drive for unbelievably beautiful butter? Evidently, I’ll drive 415.98 miles.
Let me begin at the beginning.
While in France this last spring with my “Let’s Go Cook la Bonne Cuisine” group, I happened to pass by a TV and was drawn to the sight of a mountainous amount of butter and folks in white lab garments using two small wooden paddles to shape it into different shapes and sizes.
Totally engrossed, I called to Patrick, the owner of Chateau de la Barge in Burgundy, where I was staying. “Come quick, you’ve got to see this.” Then two of us were captivated in the story of Jean-Yves Bordier and his butter.
By the time we got to the part that shows Bordier sniffing the various butters like a master sommelier and knowing just how much more salt or citrus is needed in the hand-crafted creations, I was already on my phone searching for where I’d be able to find this butter once I got back to the U.S.
I assume that his nose is insured by Lloyd’s of London.
The son and grandson of cheesemongers, Bordier grew up in the world of fresh cream, Parisian farmers markets and tried and trusted hand-crafted methods. The transition from cheese to butter makes total sense.
In St. Malo, Brittany in 1985, he acquired the La Maison du Burrs creamery, founded in 1927. Here, he discovered the importance of kneading butter, a method handed down by early artisans. Perfecting his craft has lead to his unbelievable butters.
Slowly but surely, professional international chefs created a devoted fan base. Silken textures, specific aromatics, light hints of salt, balancing of flavors —Bordier happily responds to the needs of each chef.
As Patrick and I watched the cows being fed, we learned the importance of their specific breed and physical locations in Normandy and Brittany.
The terroir, their feed, sociological territory, and geological history are all part of the process.
In different seasons, the feed for the cows is adapted accordingly. Different season and the times of day a cow is milked determines the end color of the butter.
Summer butter boasts a vivid yellow color because of the chlorophyll and beta carotenes of fresh grass and meadow flowers that the cows graze on. This butter offers a texture that is supple, tender, silky and with a hint of caramel in the taste.
Winter butter is ivory white, with a more brittle, crumbly and grainy texture and a sweeter taste. In the winter, the cows are fed with superior silage from aerated drying pens that preserve the quality of the alfalfa.
Interestingly, butter that has the same color all year long comes from cows fed with corn.
Bordier butters have less water content and are made with cultured cream, yielding an appealing texture and consistency. The quality of their butters is reflective of the milk produced from the local cows.
The flavors in the butters are all natural. In the vanilla, you see the teeny specks of vanilla bean. The algues (seaweed/algae) is hand-selected from kelp beds in Brittany, being sure to not pull the roots so that the growth in a natural habitat will continue.
Soon, both Patrick and I were both searching on our phones, since Normandy is too far to journey and we both needed to try this butter.
A wonderful thing happened, as Patrick discovered that a cheese shop in nearby Macon sells Bordier butter. You’d have thought it was Christmas and we had just found a toy we’d feared we could not find.
I began to develop a plan on how to get my butter home because my search had not yielded me any options to purchase in the U.S. I figured I could protect in a box in the center of my checked bag, since it’s known to be chilly in the luggage hold of the plane. Then it’s only two hours from the airport to my house in a vehicle with AC. I was that determined.
On the drive back from Macon, I had a light-bulb moment. Why was I bringing home the four different butters I had just purchased when my current group of traveling foodies would probably be happy to share their thoughts with me for the article I knew I was going to write.
With seven volunteers at the ready, Patrick hosted the butter tasting in the chateau’s restaurant. Only foodies will understand the excitement building as we waited for the butters and fresh bread. Better yet were the looks on the faces of other diners wondering what the heck was going on with this crazy group of Americans and the owner of the chateau.
We had four 1-pound wrapped butters, vanilla, olive oil and citrus, raspberry and smoked, all beautifully plated.
To say the butters did not disappoint is a huge understatement.
I listened to each of the group describe how they would use the butters. Absolutely perfect pairing ideas. Wanda and Cliff from Texas knew that they would enjoy the raspberry butter on freshly made warm biscuits; Debbie from Napa could imagine the vanilla on pancakes or waffles. I intended to try the smoked melted over a baked white fish or atop a baked potato.
Having this butter with mere bread, even in an amazing French restaurant might be a special kind of sacrilege. I was relieved to discover that Bordier has said that his butters are “totally devoted to your bread.”
We devour two pounds of butter in our experiment and we didn’t regret a smidge of it.
Fast-forward to the next night at dinner and the cry went up from the guests, “Is there any butter left”?
So, out comes the butter again and Patrick does not flinch when we began to experiment on the foods we have ordered. Actually, he was doing the same. Foodies will be foodies. He and I had both ordered seared scallops and could not decide which we enjoyed more melted over the dish, the smoked butter or the olive oil and citrus combo. Patrick was planning to discuss this idea with his chef, Franz.
The butter flavor that intrigued me the most was the algues. It seems this is the most popular, as the shopkeeper in Macon explained when she had none available. I had not given up hope yet about finding a purveyor in the U.S.
Another thing that surprised me was the price. I was expecting to be shocked, given the prices we see at home for imported specialty butter. I was prepared to splurge, but each pound of butter was the equivalent of approximately $5 U.S.
I don’t know who was more shocked, me or the shopkeeper and Patrick when I explained what this would probably cost me at home, given that standard mass-produced brands here are typically this same price. Price be damned, I was still planning to purchase some when I got home, if I could only find it.
In listening to the comments of those who have had the pleasure of meeting Jean-Yves Bordier, one gets the definite impression that he’s a man of passion, modesty, big heartedness and joy. He’s quoted as saying “When my butter cries, it means it is singing. When my butter sings, it means it is crying”.
Finding the butter
Upon my return to Napa, I began my quest again: Find the butter.
My pleading email to the Bordier company brought me a few steps closer to my goal. There were two shops in California that were carrying Bordier, both in the Los Angeles area. One at the famed L.A. Farmers Market and the other in Calabasas. No websites, more searching, messages left and then, voila, a reply from Julie Newman, owner of “French—le Concept Store” in Calabasas. She had the mysterious algues butter in stock.
Never having had a request for her butters to be shipped, more conversations ensued, and I was more than happy to research shipping options that might work for her. The answer became clear. I was driving to a family event in Southern California. Road trip! It would be just a slight three-hour diversion to Calabasas on a Friday during commuter traffic. No big deal.
Julie’s shop was like stepping into an artisan boutique in the heart of France. Everything from food products to the hand-painted wallpaper spoke of a love of France. One-of-a-kind decorator pieces, linens for every room, furnishings, cookware and more. Cooking classes and tastings offered on Saturdays and the lovely Emilie all the way from France as her assistant. Absolument charmant.
Then, there it was, the refrigerator case and a petite satchel with my name on it. My butter was waiting for me. Not only was I presented with the algues, there was Piment d’ Esplette. One of the most fun gifts I have ever received. Merci, Julie.
With my treasure safely nestled in my cooler, I continued my journey and for a week I admired the butters as they lounged in my sister’s fridge. I always hate to leave after family visits, but I was so excited to get home and get into my kitchen.
I knew I would be experimenting with the algues paired with fish or a crustacean, but what to do with the Piment d’ Esplette, a staple of Basque countryside, on the border of France and Spain.
Not to be confused with the pimento we are familiar with here, the unique flavor and red color of the Piment d’ Esplette comes from Esplette peppers, ever so slightly smoky and similar in heat to paprika. My culinary light bulb brightened. I knew I needed to try this butter on fresh corn grilled on the barbecue.
And I was passing a roadside farm stand just outside of Rio Vista. Corn, check.
Sometimes you just know when certain flavors will blend and create a party in your mouth. This was the case with the grilled corn and Piment d’ Esplette, my dinner that night. A myriad vegetables and eggs are just waiting to be adorned with this butter.
Exercising great restraint, I was able to wait three whole days before I dove head-first into more butter.
Bordier was the first to imagine a butter with seaweed. The first naturally flavored butter in his repoitoire, inspired at a dinner with friends to accompany their catch of the day. This butter fell under the spotlight when it was discovered by Eric Lecerf, head chef at Joel Robuchon.
A mariner’s dream, the algues butter takes its vividness from seaweed filled with iodine and adorns your plates with tones of red, green and black.
I recommend keeping it simple. I selected a Pacific cod. No need for seasoning and definitely no lemon. Remember, it’s about the butter. I pan fried the filet in the algues butter. I poured the butter and pan drippings through a small strainer and then using only the strained butter as the sauce, I adorned the cod and sauteed veggies it sat upon. Anticipation and finally the telling moment. As I search for the right professional descriptive word to express my reaction, all I can come up with is: Wowie Wow.
Having saved the remnants in the strainer I expanded my research and added the tiny crunch bits to my plate just in case I was missing something. In the end, you have two options. Strain or don’t strain, you can’t go wrong either way.
I know I am not alone when it comes to the appreciation of high-performance butter. But I warn you, prepare to be hooked.
You will have to contact Julie at “French—le Concept Store” and request that she overnight you Bordier Burre in a cooled container. ( Julie@french.us or call (818) 223-9600.)
Price wish, as expected, the prices in the French cheese shop are good only in France. The price point for the butter in California is $12 for a quarter pound. Once you taste it, you won’t even flinch.
This being said, I am sending a shout-out to Josh, the savvy cheese monger at Sunshine to investigate. Are you listening Oakville Grocery, Oxbow Cheese and Wine Merchant, the Fatted Calf? Wouldn’t you like to be the first in our neighborhood to offer this brai- boggling butter? I have the names of who you’d need to contact at Bordier. I’ll even pay for the phone call.
On behalf of all the devout foodies in the Valley, I thank you, and they will thank you.