The secrets of handmade butter from France and why Hong Kong’s top chefs love cooking with it
Beurre Bordier is a kitchen staple at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Petrus and Caprice in Hong Kong. At his base in Brittany, Jean-Yves Bordier explains the artisanal techniques that make his butter so delicious and sought after
Ahhhhh, butter. Slathered on a warm baguette, whisked in at the last minute to enrich a sauce, layered and folded into dough to create a flaky croissant, an essential ingredient in a decadent cake or pastry. It’s not the healthiest of fats, but few would deny it’s the tastiest.
It can be salted or unsalted, whipped, clarified as ghee or even made from fermented (cultured) cream. One country that arguably knows and loves butter more than most is France, and when it comes to the very best, few can match Le Beurre Bordier, an artisanal producer in the charming Brittany seaside town of St Malo.
Jean-Yves Bordier’s distinctive, delicious handmade butter is sought out the world over. Hong Kong’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Caprice and Petrus are just a few of the high-end restaurants in Beurre Bordier’s global customer base.
Bordier is a charismatic, entertaining and marketing-savvy sort who made his butter one of France’s best known. One look at the videos on his website show that he’s not afraid of the camera. But there needs to be substance behind the show and Bordier has it in spades.
Bordier is the third generation in a family of fromagiers (cheesemongers). In 1985 he acquired a creamery, La Maison du Beurre, that was founded in 1927.
It’s the art of kneading butter that has helped guarantee the quality. It’s an age-old technique and tradition, one that imparts extra flavour and a noticeably smooth texture. A number of top chefs seem to agree, including Fabrice Vulin at the two Michelin star Tasting Room in Macau’s City of Dreams, a long-time fan of Bordier and his butter.
“I love Bordier’s butter. Silky, complex and aromatic, it brings out the best in a chef’s creations.
From generation to generation, the family of Jean-Yves Bordier has passed on their know-how, something that makes a considerable difference as excellence begets excellence.”
The process of producing some of the planet’s best butter starts in the organic dairy farms of Brittany and Normandy. After the milk is collected it is creamed, pasteurised and left to mature for two days, as it thickens and the flavours develop. Different seasons impart different flavours, with floral notes in spring and a sweeter taste in summer.
As Bordier explains, “Butter comes from maternity as it comes from milk, that comes from a cow after giving birth. It concerns all of us. It’s also nature’s blotting paper as its taste changes all year long depending on the cows, the climate, the land and the grass, the flowers that cows eat.”
The next step is churning, gradually separating the solid curds from the liquid whey. The whey is replaced with iced water, before a second churning. It’s a traditional technique, far removed from industrial butter, allowing more of the cream molecules to be preserved. After resting for 24 hours, the butter is ready for the all-important kneading, salting and flavouring.
A kneader is both the person operating it and the equipment, namely a teak frame with a wheel that slowly turns in the opposite direction to the frame. The process oxidises and softens the butter and is complete only when the experienced kneader “feels” it. kneading times vary, depending on the temperature, the season and the feed given to the cows
Fine salt – once sourced by boiling down local seawater – is added to taste, as the molecules of fat react and release a sort of butter water, something Bordier says is akin to “crying”. As he explains theatrically, “When my butter cries, it means it is singing!”
Flavouring is next, something Bordier started doing after talking with a fishmonger friend and creating a butter for brill, flavoured with seaweed. There are now 10 flavoured butters including espelette chilli, buckwheat and fennel. Two are distinctly Asian: yuzu butter and a garlic, herb and Sichuan pepper creation. There are also sweet butters – a Madagascan vanilla and a seasonal raspberry butter.
The three natural flavours are unsalted, semi-salted (demi-sel) and salted, the latter of which is the most popular in Bordier’s compact St Malo shop, La Maison du Beurre. Behind the blue shopfront, the counter boasts a hugely tempting range of cheeses. This being late summer, there were the soft rinds such as the famously stinky reblochon, delicious Tomme de Savoie, Camembert and the peerless, ridiculously creamy Brillat-Savarin. They also produce sardines in Bordier butter, jars of butter caramel sauce and outrageously good babas de Saint Malo – rum babas made with butter, vanilla and a huge whack of finest Guadeloupe rum.
But clearly, butter is the main draw and the Bordier shop even has a mini-museum. There are churns, barrels and instruments that look like medieval torture devices. There’s also a demonstration of how the butter is hand-shaped using two paddles, a technique dating back at least 500 years, as dexterity and surprisingly gentle movements coax the butter into rectangles or smaller pats. The final flourish, at least for some products, is a curved “B” stamped on the butter before it’s wrapped.
It’s a symbolic and important final moment for Jean-Yves Bordier, someone for whom butter is much more than just food. “Butter has played a role in our social, economic, religious, and health history and is deeply linked to our human story. It enhances any meal and we still use old savoir faire to make ours, the beauty coming in the artisanal gestures that form it.”
It may end up on the dining tables of Paris, New York or of course Hong Kong, one of Bordier’s top three export markets.
In Macau, Vulin explains how he uses it across his menu: “I use a range of their products such as seaweed butte in a turbot dish or the smoked butter in a cappuccino of petits pois and broad beans with an onion emulsion. Also, of course, in desserts such as our shortbread biscuit with their vanilla butter, Provençal figs and confit peach.”
Hong Kong butter fans needn’t miss out; in addition to being served at many restaurants, it’s also available at Freshmart in the Sogo department stores – a special treat for the ultimate in simple but delicious decadence.
Chris Dwyer visited St Malo as part of a culinary exploration with Windstar Cruises, windstarcruises.com