Daniel Bardsley travels to the Rondeau family farm in western France to meet a local cheese and butter connoisseur Francois Robin (pictured), who is an expert in the French butter in Dubai shops.
Consumers in the UAE have about half a dozen brands to choose from at different price points. Among the mass-produced brands is the well-known President, while at the premium end, Carrefour and Spinneys stock Beillevaire, a butter produced by a family-owned company and made from raw (unpasteurised) milk.
Farms supplying Beillevaire's facility in Machecoul in the Loire Atlantique region of western France are typical of those producing milk in France: family owned and with about 70 and 160 Holstein cows. Cows can graze outside on grass between late March and November, and daily production per animal is restricted to about 30 litres to maintain a high fat content for butter making. Butter production at the Beillevaire plant is characterised by the use of 100-year-old churns made from teak. This churning produces “grains” of butter that undergo further processing.
Francois, in your opinion what are some of the French butters in the UAE that people might consider?
With Beillevaire, what's really interesting is that they're collecting from only five farms and there's no chilling of the milk. It's the natural aromas. And they use a wooden churn. If you add up these positive elements, it makes a really big difference. In the Dubai market you can also find PDO [Protected Denomination of Origin] butter, such as Isigny from Normandy. This is more for eating like at breakfast, when you put it on bread. But if you want to cook with it, you can choose a really good quality French butter from a larger production. It's still the same idea of small farms, family run, with grass feeding, but maybe it's not made in a churn. President is good.
What distinguishes French butter from butter produced elsewhere?
First of all, French butter is protected by law, so you cannot add any preservative except salt – you can be sure there are no chemicals inside. It's based on the milk of small farms – it's roughly 60 cows per working family – and the main food is grass, according to the season, so you're pretty sure it's a natural product. That makes a difference between French butter and the ones that are made with vegetable oils. French butter is naturally yellow, and the colour changes according to the season, but that's natural and we don't try to correct that. When it's spring and summer, there are a lot of flowers and that gives a specific yellow colour.
What advice would you give for cooking with butter?
Don't push the butter too high in temperature, because the protein will become brown and black, which is not very good for the taste. You have to use it more for low temperature cooking or at the end of the cooking to nourish the meat or vegetables so it doesn't become brown. If you want to use it for higher temperature cooking, you have to clarify the butter. Put this in the fridge and just use the crystallised fat part; you can keep it for a week or 10 days and it will go up to 150ºC or 160ºC.
What is the best way to preserve butter?
It should be kept in the fridge in a closed box. It could be a glass jar or plastic according to what you want, but it has to be closed because butter is a flavour trap. If you don't do this, it will capture all the flavours of your fridge. What is good to do is to take small quantities out of the fridge at a time. If you take large amounts at a time and leave it outside before putting it back, it will become rancid faster. The shelf life should be about one month.