Friday, January 13, 2012

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.


Blogger Susan said...

What a lovely vignette! I can't wait to see what you make with all that gorgeous butter! I agree - I wouldn't get "cheap stuff," either.

Enjoy your weekend!

2:11 AM, January 14, 2012  
Anonymous Lori @ In My Kitchen, In My Life said...

Were you walking and carrying all that? That has to be one of the biggest differences between city and rural living -- the having to consider what one can carry.

Thanks for the lovely picture of your early morning market tour.

3:14 AM, January 14, 2012  
Blogger Terra said...

I've read your blog for quite some time and don't think I've ever commented. But today you have moved me with your beautiful story about a simpler way of life. It makes me want to head down to the market myself and see what kind of simple pleasures I can find. Just lovely.

4:27 AM, January 14, 2012  
Blogger Wendy said...

I love your writing, Lucy, and I'm so very envious of your markets and your butter-man!
Can't wait to see Plum Lyon finished and perhaps even to visit some day.

9:06 AM, January 14, 2012  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Oh yes, Susan, the butter has been partially put to good use, Susan. Lori, yes, I carried it home, it was not unmanageable. Thanks for our comment, Terra. Wendy, it would be lovely to see you.

10:42 AM, January 14, 2012  
Blogger Deltha said...

Love your story and the blog. I live in rural Arkansas and crave markets like the one you described. Produce and farmers are plentiful here, but there is nothing like shopping at a market every day. Thanks for sharing. Very inspiring.

4:56 PM, January 14, 2012  
Blogger Laura said...

What a lovely story and photograph. I just love fresh butter from the farmer. Why in the world did I ever eat margarine??? Yuck!

10:45 PM, January 14, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was with a friend in an Amish section of Northwest, PA and we stopped at a home and purchased fresh churned butter from the lady of the house. It was the best butter I've ever had in the States. I want to go back and find her again!


3:31 AM, January 15, 2012  
Blogger dillon said...

A lovely read Lucy. Your Saint Antoine market experiences are some of my favourite.

9:53 AM, January 15, 2012  
Blogger tamzie said...

Oh dear. I miss Quai St Antoine. Every time I read your blog I am craving to be back in Lyon. We are talking about Lyon again for my husbands study leave next year. So hard to decide if we should explore new territories or return to an old experience. Our last trip was six fabulous months in Laos. your blog certainly pushes me towards the Lyon option. But there are so many places on this planet and life is short. Keep up the good work.

6:55 AM, January 20, 2012  
Blogger marie C said...

hello Lucy,
Yes, the deep yellow butter of the summer has the flavor of grassy meadows, the rich creamy texture is much more floral. The white winter butter is like the winter sun... Thanks to your post I can taste it in my mouth, right now!
marie from the pays de gex

9:44 PM, April 23, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I was a publisher I would be hammering on your door with a contract. You are a joy to read.

I look forward to seeing the recipe for those wonderful French pastries you made and photographed. If you can bear to share it.

4:35 PM, June 23, 2012  

Post a Comment

<< Home