(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By Sophia McDonald
‘Terroir’ is a French term typically associated with fine wine, to the point where most dictionaries have definitions like this one from Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “The combination of factors including soil, climate and sunlight that give wine grapes their distinctive character.”
However, chefs are increasingly talking about terroir as it relates to butter. Where butter comes from can affect not only the flavor, but also the texture of baked goods, which makes the selection of butter in different applications important to pay attention to. French butter is a natural choice in pastries and cakes, and that’s why more chefs prefer to use it in their kitchens.
Even from region to region in a place like France, where growing conditions and local food processing traditions can vary markedly, it’s possible to taste a difference. Terroir can also help chefs tell an appealing story about their products to modern consumers, who are eager to understand more about food origins or geographical indications.
For those unfamiliar with the term ‘terroir’, Michael Laiskonis, a pastry and baking arts chef-instructor and Creative Director of the Institute of Culinary Education, defines it as “a sense of place.” Different parts of the planet have unique combinations of factors, such as weather, elevation, sun exposure and microbiology, that lend flavor to agricultural products and typically cannot be replicable in other places. There are also human factors, such as local processing traditions and political and socioeconomic realities, that can affect how products are made and what they taste like.
With butter, terroir is likely noticeable in animals that are grass fed. That’s because what pastured animals eat imparts a noticeable flavor in products like butter. Grass is rich in beta carotene, which the body can convert to Vitamin A as needed. It lends a certain taste and the beautiful yellow color to many French butters, which is why most chefs prefer to use French butter rather than American ones. (Beta-carotene is also an antioxidant.)
From the Channel Coast to the Alps and the valleys of the Loire, every French region boasts very different landscapes and food sources beyond grass. For Beurre de Bresse PDO butter from Rhône-Alpes, cows eat locally grown cereal grains that are different from the foods consumed by the animals that produce PDO butter from Normandy. The unique character of French butter is the result of these varying terroirs.
Pastry chef Romain Dufour, who grew up in France, said the terroir of French butter is noticeable to him. “When I taste French butter, I can taste the grass,” he said. “I can picture myself being in that place. You can really taste the difference between French butter and other butter.” Even the variation between different French butters is notable. The butter from Brittany is going to have fresh grassy notes, whereas he gets hints of seaweed or salinity in the butters of neighboring Normandy.
Local butter-making traditions may also vary from place to place. That’s why it’s important for pastry chefs to keep that element of terroir in mind as they choose butter. For example, when Dufour buys butter for croissants, he is more likely to choose beurre sec or dry butter, which has a minimum of 84 percent butterfat and less water than other types. That helps achieve proper lamination, said Dufour. While he looks at fat content for croissants, he’s more focused on the flavor of butter when making brioche, since the buttery flavor is such a critical part of the dish, which means he may choose a butter from a different area. In addition to butter, terroir is likely to be evident in cheese and charcuterie, because they are greatly affected by the animal’s diet, said Dufour.
Beyond the function of pastry, terroir can play an important role in storytelling. “I love sharing the story of food, and I think consumers are increasingly interested in the story too,” said Laiskonis. For consumers who are concerned about where their food comes from, animal welfare and sustainable practices, knowing that they’re eating grass fed butter may be a big selling point. Many dairy producers participate in an industry-wide program called France Terre de Lait, which is involved in activities such as lowering the carbon footprint of milk by 17 percent and assessing farms to provide the best possible environment for cows.
To understand why more American chefs and pastry chefs are also using French butter, “I would encourage people to taste and explore things outside of their experience,” Laiskonis said. Compare the differences between French and American butter and see if you can also taste a bit of the French countryside in every bite.
French butter is churned longer to achieve 82% butter fat, making it richer and creamier
with a golden hue. For tips, tricks and recipes on how to use French Butter to romance the flavor of any cuisine, visit www.tasteeurope.com.