For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.
But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time.
Knowing all this, I was still inspired and haunted by an image I saw recently on a food blog of the tastiest combination of this “evil” duo: creamy butter laced and studded with large crystals of salt. This tempting concoction is beurre salé (literally, “salted butter”), a regional specialty from the Brittany region of France.
Worth Its Salt
So what makes this salted butter different from the kind you can buy at the local supermarket? For one thing, it’s made with Brittany sea salt, some of the finest produced anywhere. Brittany is located in the northwest corner of France (south of Normandy) and its lengthy ocean coastline is a perfect place for cultivating salt. Its most famous type of salt, fleur de sel , comes from the town of Guérande (which was historically part of Brittany, but is now part of the Pays de Loire region), and is world-renowned for its texture and flavor.
Having such ready access to salt, Breton cuisine developed to take advantage of this situation. Whereas in most other regions of France there are dozens, if not hundreds, of types of cheese specific to that region, there is not even a word for cheese in the Breton language. There are a few cheeses to be found in the region, but less-processed dairy products (butter and cream) are much more prevalent in the Breton cuisine. The reason is that before the advent of refrigeration, making milk into cheese was more effective against spoilage than making butter—that is, unless you had plenty of salt.
Salt has historically been used as a preservative; that is a large part of why it has been so coveted throughout human history. In the case of butter, this was especially so, since butter has a tendency to quickly go rancid when it is exposed to air. Refrigeration has taken care of this problem for modern butter-eaters (and the invention of a water-sealed butter dish helped too), but it was a serious problem for our ancestors. According to Margaret Visser’s book Much Depends on Dinner, butter that has been oxidized (exposed to the air) can cause “diarrhoea, poor growth, loss of hair, skin lesions, anorexia, emaciation and intestinal haemorrhages.”
Mixing butter with salt, or storing it in brine, was a way to prevent butter from going rancid, and was commonly done before the days of refrigeration. Indeed, a record from A.D. 1305 noted that one pound of salt was added to every ten pounds of butter or cheese. To remove some of the salt, people had to rinse the butter by kneading water into it, and then squeezing it out again along with some of the salt.
No longer a necessity, beurre salé is today a gourmet treat; it is used in many traditional Breton dishes, and is coveted for its delicious effect on everything from fine chocolates to buttery cakes. It may seem counterintuitive, but salt can be as important as sugar in many dessert recipes, and lends an interesting counterpoint to the sweetness.
Traditional Breton desserts made using beurre salé include: gâteaux Breton, a type of poundcake made with flour, butter, sugar, and eggs; palets Bretons, small buttery cakes; and caramel au beurre salé, which can refer to individual candies (salted caramels) or the process of caramelizing sugar and salted butter while baking a dessert, such as Kouign Amann. Amann is the Breton word for butter, and this cake is made with plenty of it, along with yeast, sugar, flour, and water.
Personally, I can’t wait to try all of these delicacies, despite my commitment to healthier living. For though butter and salt may play havoc with my cardiac capabilities, together they seem capable of melting anyone’s heart. —Morgen Jahnke
My initial inspiration for this article came from David Lebovitz’s trip to his local Paris market, detailed on his blog, DavidLebovitz.com. This week at the market shows a photo of a mouth-watering slab of beurre salé he found at the market. A professional pastry chef and author, David seems to have a warm spot in his heart for beurre salé: Long Live The Kouign! has his mouth-watering recipe for Kouign Amann; other butter-related posts include Brittany’s Butter Bonanza and The Return Of Salted Butter.
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky is a fascinating look at the role salt has played throughout history.
Margaret Visser’s delightful book Much Depends on Dinner includes individual chapters on butter and salt.