We ate fresh mussels. FRESH! Picked right off the rock by our very own Ofer, Great Catcher of Mussels! Words will do no justice to the sublime freshness of our meal.  There is fresh seafood and then there is the taste of the ocean in every bite.  Seafood markets never again will be able to live up to the freshness of mussles only hours from rock to pot.

On the Italian Front

Butter from here must be good...?

Butter from here must be good…?

The butter battles may appear to have quieted, but we do have reports.  Our friend Christina visited from Rome and stayed for the Christmas holiday.  We were lucky to have her bring a sample from Italy’s share of the Alps, the Dolomites.  Sounds promising.  (Alps butter has a strong reputation.  At least that’s what I hear from one of France’s neighbors to the east.)

But no, the Dolomite butter was no match.  It was creamy, it was 82% fat, but it didn’t taste cultured.  In fact, it tasted as though it were an upscale version of North American butter – extra creamy and smooth but no distinctive flavor.  Italy is an olive oil country, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they don’t have the same obsession with butter that France does.

Butter Wars – Europe vs. USA

Finally, a quick look at how European butter differs from butter in the U.S.

The main differences are fat content and culture.  As mentioned earlier, American butters contain roughly 80% – 82% fat.  European butters hover around 82% – 84%, sometimes higher.  For us bakers, more fat means less water in the pastry and lighter, flakier crust.  The lower fat American butters are fine for bread, cookies and cakes, baking that doesn’t produce delicate layers.  Pie crusts and flaky pastries come out better with higher fat European butter.  Why is it so difficult to find a proper croissant in the U.S. – it’s the butter.

European butters also differ in process.  Similar to the way yogurt is made, European butter is cultured with bacteria.  The result produces a slight tang and fuller butter flavor.  For chemistry geeks, that light sour comes from the addition of Lactococcus and Leuconostoc to pasteurized cream.  American butter production skips this part, so its cream remains “sweet,” not sour.  Those rectangular sticks Americans buy are sweet cream butter, meaning the cream was not cultured.  On French packaging doux means sweet, but in this case it means the butter is unsalted.

On taste – American butter is fine.  I like it on biscuits and pancakes.  Toast.  But I prefer cultured butter and would never eat American butter in the same butter to bread ratio that I do in France (mostly butter, little bread).  American butter has too low a flavor profile, and when placed next to cultured butters, it’s bland and unremarkable.  The flavor of a good cultured butter allows the butter to stand on its own.  It needs little else, not even salt.

Next battleground – Who makes the best butter in Europe?  France vs. Not France


While Jennifer has been writing about butter, I have been eating bread and planning a blog post on the topic.

Bottom line: The bread is tasty !!

In Paris, there are bakeries all around. The french still shop daily, so while there are supermarkets and such – there is an economy for small neighborhood shops for everything: butchers, greengrocers and bakeries. I also read this in the Wikipedia article

French bread is required by law to avoid preservatives, and as a result bread goes stale in under 24 hours, thus baking baguettes is a daily occurrence, unlike sourdough bread which is baked generally once or twice a week, due to the natural preservatives in a sourdough starter.

Where we live it seems like there are even more bakeries than the average – see the map below with markers of some of the bakeries around our apartment. Click on the markers  for notes and pictures.

View Bakeries near us in a larger map

We have been eating primarily baguette, but the bakeries are full of different breads, not  all long loafs are baguette (which literally mean stick). If you go and ask at the bakery for baguette, you will get something different than if you ask for baguette tradition which is also typically 5 or 10 centimes more expensive.

Now what makes one baguette better that others? Well it’s about texture and flavor of both the crust and the sponge. In baguette the top crust should be crisp but still chewy, the bottom firm and chewy. And then the flavor of the dough.

Every year Paris runs a competition for the best baguette. The winner gets a contract for a year to deliver to the presidential palace. In 5 of the 6 past years the winner has been from the 18th arrondissement where we live. We have tasted the baguette at the winners of 2012,2011,2010 – all walking distance from our house, though two of them are on the other  side of the “hill”.

My favorite bread and the one we tend to get most often is “la Parisse” from a close-by bakery which makes a bread recipe designed by Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), Gaëtan Paris (yes that’s his name). The bread is baked by selected bakeries. The Parisse (according to his website), get its flavor from natural fermentation. Its a very mild sourdough.  With Jennifer’s butter  its heaven.

I’ll end with a bread story. I am in my sweats walking back home from the other side of the hill back home with a baguette sticking out of a short bag which I had been eating from the end. A french tourist guide with an English speaking group roaming Monmartre stopped me to take a group picture and explained to the one of the tourist that “this is how the French eat their baguette on the way home from the bakery.”

More on Butter Process

Back to the butter after a few interruptions.

An inquiring mind asked what happens to the buttermilk once the butter fat fully separates.  First, some clarification.  “Buttermilk” from butter churning is not the same buttermilk on the store shelf.  Commercial buttermilk at the grocery is a cultured milk, meaning bacteria was added to homogenized milk to create the slightly thick, lightly tangy milk.  Makes for very tasty pancakes and biscuits.  Some like it as beverage.

The “buttermilk” that results from butter process is basically a skim milk.  It is sweet, not sour.  Some of it goes toward making other dairy products, like yogurt and cheese.  In the “olden days” when folks churned their own butter, the milk by-product was fed to farm animals.  In fact, the practice continues.  Our very own USDA promoted dehydrated “buttermilk” to feed chickens, hogs and cattle.  Other USDA workers scorn this practice, calling it wasteful.  They argue that the skim milk could go toward cottage cheese production.  With every pound of butter yielding approximately 15 – 20 pounds of skim milk, cheap protein can be used to feed more humans, not critters.

Want to see how this works?  See Chef Butter below. (If you don’t want to wait the full 9 minutes, you can skip to the end when the chef squeezes out excess milk from the butter and ladels out a sip of buttermilk.)

Some Butter Basics

Butter is a highly concentrated form of milk that contains protein, calcium and phosphorous, and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E.  It is produced by churning whole milk or straight cream until butter fats form and separate from the water-based components of the cream.  Approximately five gallons of whole milk or cream yield just over two pounds of butter.  In North America, butters hover between 80% – 82% milk fat, whereas European butters are typically between 82% – 84%.  The rest of it is mostly water (more later on the importance of water content) and a few milk solids.  Salted butters have salt added, of course, typically in concentrations of 1% – 2%.  There’s a lot of chemistry to butter, but we’ll skip the composition details for the moment and move next to explaining how U.S. butters differ from European butters.  And of course, why French (Breton) butter tastes bestest of all.

N.B.  Let the record show that an agent of one of France’s neighboring states has launched a formal challenge to my claim of French butter superiority.  Stay tuned for…The Butter Wars.

Butter vs. God

“Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral

Bless those always looking  for ways to bend the rules, especially for those life essentials we can’t seem to live without – like butter.  During the Middle Ages, butter was a banned food during Lent.  Europeans of the south didn’t mind this so much.  They used olive oil for cooking anyway.  But those in the north, having neither the Mediterranean climate nor olive trees of their southern brothers, relied heavily on butter.  Disgusted by and resentful of the distasteful oil sold them by Southerners, Northerners opted to pay a nominal fee (six deniers Tournois) to the Church to be exempt from the prohibition.  Was it a few coins gathered?  Hardly.  The butter payments were so lucrative for the diocese of Rouen that the church was able to fund a new tower, aptly named the “Butter Tower,” completed in 1507.

Butter – 1    God – 0


Speaking of the religious, Martin Luther was particularly miffed by Lent’s butter bans. In 1520 he scoffed, “For at Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter .”


Coming Soon: The Butter Chronicles

I’ve been eating a lot of butter lately.  A lot of butter.  During breakfast one morning,  Ofer looked at the dime-sized piece of baguette in my hand.  Proportionately speaking, the butter that blocked view of the bread beneath made the piece of baguette look like a stray crumb that had fallen on a slab of butter.  He suggested that perhaps I had it backward – that the butter was not intended as a delivery device for the bread.

Really?  Says who?

So in homage to good butter (which I believe can only be found in France), I have planned a few tasty factoids about one of the simpler finer things in life.

To get readers in the mood, we’ll start with this handy video about butter making in Bretagne.  (Breton butter is my favorite butter.)  There aren’t subtitles for the French, but the fun part is in the visuals.  And if readers understand French, all the better.

Butter Video (begins after short ad)