The Color of Butter
“Get the cheap kind. We’re going to go through tons.” I nodded when she said it, and calculated briefly. Even if I am going to be baking though an entire textbook lineup of French pastry, I sure as hell am not going to be using low quality butter. I am going to get the very best possible butter available to me, albeit at a reasonable price, which means, periodic Friday mornings at dawn, I will be trotting down to the Quai St. Antoine to find my butter man. Now it is an extra 15 minutes walk, but I don’t care. I have already explained my reasoning for this.
I searched his small cart for the mound of the good stuff. He began with the typical dry Lyonnais greeting. “I’m listening.” Not meeting my gaze or even turning my way. It was early, many of the stands were still setting up. He had money out on the table, a cluster of coins on the mat, something he didn’t seem to plan to move anytime soon. I looked at his back, the slope of his shoulders. I felt a little bit sad.
In a tone that matched his, my simple response was “I am here for your butter”. He froze for a moment and turned around, a huge smile on his face. He came to life. It is this that I miss about Saint Antoine, my market for 10 years. I must come down more often even if it isn't logical for me to carry a market basket so far.
“Hey, I know you,” he joked, his scrubbed clean cheeks pulling taut in the morning wind. I felt a little tear swell and put a check on it immediately. No need to get misty eyed over such a thing.
I made my order (about 5 and a half pounds) and he began to cut off pieces. He always cuts them into smaller chunks because his paper is sized for smaller blocks. I have this game with butter. I like to predict, down to the gram, exactly how much is cut. A little pat, a chunk, irregularly shaped, stacked, in a mixing bowl, cut for a recipe. If it is butter, I guess. Just one of those things. I try to hit down to the gram. Always.
360, I thought. He slowly wrapped the block in a thin sheet of paper that resembles that old onion skin that we used to be able to get and plopped it on the scale. Score! 363.
“You are lucky you didn’t come last week, Madame Vanel. They didn’t malax the butter enough. Terrible, just terrible.”
I pondered this idea and he began on a new subject. “You see that this is still quite yellow in color. Do you know why?” he didn’t wait for my response. “It is because the cows, right now, are still in grazing in the pasture. Can you believe it?”
“This time of year? Bizarre. I doubt that happens very often in January.” I responded. A special butter then. It seemed to fit. A special butter to begin this year’s project. He launched into some other story involving geographical details in the pastureland, I admit I was watching the wire he was using to cut the butter, observing the coil it made, wondering how this affected my perception of the mass and how it could translate in my guess. He cut and wrapped slowly.
An older woman sidled up and he continued his careful cadence, running the kinked wire evenly to slice through the block. She waited patiently but shuffled a bit after a few minutes. “Do you have just a short order, Madame?” he asked.
“Oh yes, just a wedge of Morbier” she said, meekly. He quickly filled her cheese order and sent her on her way. He knew I wouldn’t mind.
I lined the bottom of my sack with butter and then headed back up the riverside. I didn’t want to buy too much because I had another errand to run before returning home. But I did get herbs, a bunch of beautiful rocket, two lettuces that seemed to be glowing in the morning light, 24 fresh eggs, two pounds of meaty duck wings, a couple of pots of freshly rendered duck fat, and a pound of guinea hen necks. I wished I could have bought from all my vendors.
When I got home after my errand, the fireplace man was waiting to be let into the house and the electricians were smoking in the hallway. They all smiled and forgave my being late, thank goodness.