Why Brittany Butter is Salted (& Coveted): A Bit of History

(Last Updated On: June 8, 2020)
Salted Brittany butter is a gourmet treat. What is its history?

My partner and I almost always have a block of salted Brittany butter in the fridge, and usually there’s a “backup” somewhere in the freezer, too. Why? There’s simply something addictive about its fresh, slightly sweet creaminess, reminiscent of a grassy field somewhere.

Not to mention the pure joy of crunchy bits of seasalt hitting your palate, intensifying the native flavors and adding wonderful texture. It’s divine on fresh, crusty bread, on crepes and buckwheat pancakes, as well as in simple pasta dishes.

I even prefer the way it’s often molded into a slightly rounded block, then decorated with notches at the edges or across the length.

Somehow– and maybe it’s our imagination– it just tastes better in this form than in standard industrial rectangles. Sort of comparable to how different pasta shapes impart different mouth-feels and even flavors.

Of course, le beurre salé de Bretagne (salted butter from Brittany) comes in numerous forms and flavors, from palets (small, rounded discs) to delicate, ridged cones; from demi-sel (half-salted) to fully salted varieties.

Some are even infused with local seawater and seaweed. The latter variety is something I’ve admittedly yet to try (and I’m not sure it would be to my taste).

(Note that beurre demi-sel is generally considered best for use in cooking and baking; many consider full-salt counterparts to be a bit too heavy on the stuff.) Demi-sel varieties contain between 0.5 to 3% salt.

Beurre salé de Bretagne-- in numerous forms. Image credit: Brittany Tourist Board
Image credit: Brittany Tourist Board

But what do these traditional dairy products have in common? Why has the French maritime region become so deeply associated with excellent salted butter in the first place? Keep reading for a bit of history, and suggestions on where to potentially taste some divine butters.

Thousands of Years of Salt Cultivation

Brittany, a large peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the west and the English Channel to the north, is a region richly endowed with natural seasalt beds and marshes.

These have been cultivated for thousands of years, starting during the Iron Age when Celtic tribes occupied the area.

The most famous of these, in a marshy area known as Guérande, is particularly prized for its high-quality seasalt and fleur de sel (the latter a flaky, light salt skimmed off the top of the lagoons).

This is the stuff I regularly use to finish dishes, and it’s best kept in a loose, lidded container (such as a “cellar”) to preserve its qualities.

Fleur de sel de Guérande: generally considered the gold standard of salt from Brittany

The much-prized salt lagoons of Guérande have been cultivated since at least the 3rd century, during the Roman period.

Later, during the Middle Ages, monks from the Landévennec Abbey created more sophisticated salt cultivation techniques, carefully studying tidal and weather patterns to perfect them.

Read related: Take a Self-Guided Tour of Medieval Paris

Brittany landed on the map as a major producer of a commodity that was then considered a true luxury. Trade routes were opened up to export salt throughout France and Europe, bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.

The region, along with adjoining Normandy, was also a major dairy-producing area. Seasalt was added to fresh, fermented milk and cream to keep the resulting butter fresh and protect it from going rancid.

A preference for seasalt-laced butter grew in the region and around France. But outside of Brittany, beurre doux (unsalted butter) would soon become the norm. But why, you ask?

Le Port du Croisic vu du môle de Penn-Bron, lithographie couleurs sur papier d’après Ferdinand Perrot, 1838, Collection Musée des marais salants, n° inventaire 97.74.1
A painting circa 1838 from Ferdinand Perrot shows salt traders departing Le Port du Croisic in Penn-Bron, Brittany. 8, Collection Musée des marais salants, n° inventaire 97.74.1

Enter the “Gabelle”, a Medieval Salt Tax…

But it wasn’t just Brittany’s abundant natural resources that allowed it to win the race against other French regions with comparable (salty) endowments.

It managed to entirely evade a punitive medieval salt tax that hindered other regions’ ability to fully develop their own resources.

Called the “gabelle“, the wildly unpopular tax on salt was created by King Philippe VI of Valois from 1343, as a way of securing a state monopoly on the good.

But since Brittany was independent at the time, it wasn’t subject to the tax. It was only legally incorporated into France in 1532, but it remained exempt from the gabelle due to its reigning commercial importance as a salt-producing region.

This allowed La Bretagne to continue to dominate the salt production industry in France. It also ensured that the traditional practice of churning fresh cream by hand and adding seasalt to the mix was not threatened by the tax, as it was in other dairy-producing regions such as the Loire Valley and Normandy.

Read related: The Long & Complex History of the French Macaron

Intriguingly, according to some historians Brittany’s exemption from the tax spurred a widespread, thriving black market for salt in France.

Bréton smugglers brought the luxurious stuff to adjoining regions to sell under the King’s nose– but the punishments for anyone caught doing so were incredibly severe, including exile and even death.

The despised tax was finally abolished in December 1790, a year into the French Revolution of 1789.

Some Signature Breton Butters to Try, & Where to Taste Them

You can find high-quality Bréton butter widely in the region, and even your average French supermarket stocks very good, reasonably priced varieties that are easy to find.

But if you want to taste the sorts of butters that Michelin-starred chefs and prize-winning bakers regularly use in their recipes, here are a couple that really stand out. The Finistère area of Brittany is particularly reputed for its excellent butters.

Le Beurre Bordier

Based in Saint-Malo, the historic Maison du Beurre creamery is helmed by meilleur ouvrier (best artisan) Jean-Yves Bordier, who acquired the company in the 1980s. His signature, hand-kneaded and carefully churned butter now bears his name– and is widely considered some of the finest in France.

The butter here is made by pounding and shaping it using a special wooden instrument, then adding different amounts of salt depending on the taste of the client.

When you visit, artisans will shape your desired portion of the delicious stuff right in front of you. See the mesmerizing video below for a preview.

Of course, you can also buy pre-made varieties at the creamery– from plain demi-sel in blocks to butters flavored with seaweed, herbs, or onion from the Breton coastal town of Roscoff. There’s also a separate restaurant in Saint-Malo with creative dishes featuring Bordier butter.

Where to Find it in Paris?

If you can’t make it to Saint-Malo, you can find the delicious stuff in numerous cheese shops and creameries around Paris, as well as at specialty food shops such as La Grande Epicerie at Bon Marché and Lafayette Gourmet.

Beurre le Ponclet

It’s hard to find a butter that’s more rareified and prized than Bordier’s, but if there’s a contender, it’s the incredibly silky, creamy, raw-milk variety made by a Breton creamery called Ponclet.

Produced with milk from what are reputedly rare breeds of cows that graze exclusively on natural prairie grasses near Brittany’s Mont d’Arrée, Ponclet butter is made by artisan David Akpamagbo, who calls himself a “Breton peasant”.

The humble self-attribution doesn’t take away from the fact that his butter is used by an exclusive set of only around 20 restaurants and chefs in France, including Michelin heavyweights like Le Plaza Athénée and Jean-Francois Piège.

Akpamagbo matures his cream for three days before slowly churning and hand-beating it. One delicious variety is seasoned with fleur de sel from Guérande. The flavors and textures are reputed to change according to the different milks he uses, said to each have their own “character”.

Where to Find it?

Hmm, this one’s a bit tricky. From what I can tell, the only way to buy beurre le Ponclet is to fill in this form online, or to visit one of the rather exclusive restaurants that serve it (not a possibility for many of us).

The one exception is possibly the excellent but little-known Ma’deo in Paris, a creperie that uses the prized stuff. Here, you might actually stand a chance of tasting this much-fussed about buttah without blowing your whole budget.

Places to Try Good Breton Butter in Paris

In Paris, I recommend heading to the following shops for a good selection of butters and other products from Bretagne.

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Why is Brittany butter salted? A bit of food history

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