Clarifying a Butter Shortage

This post was originally published on this site

PARIS — I knew the French consumed a lot of butter — as a Franco-American reporter in The Times’s Paris bureau covering France, I’m one of them. I settled here after years spent abroad as a Foreign Service brat, and I’ve developed quite a taste for the salted variety.

But while reporting for this week’s article on butter shortages in France, I learned just how much we consume.

News of the shortages had started to emerge in mid-October, first in local and more business-oriented outlets, then in France’s national media. It slowly became clear that the trend was not a one- or two-day fluke and that it was being felt across the country.

People were far from lining the streets — at worst, you had to settle for another brand than the one you usually bought, or had to try another supermarket. At one of my local stores, the refrigerated butter shelves were emptier than usual but not completely bare.

So this was not urgent news, and I did not want to overstate things by suggesting that France was on the brink of a butter meltdown.

But there was enough for a good story, the kind that uses news from abroad to inform our readers about a foreign country’s specific cultural traits — here, France’s extraordinary fondness for butter. According to the figures and statistics I found, it seemed France consumed more butter per person than any other country in the world.

Still, awareness of the shortages was uneven across France, depending on how closely one followed the news or whether one’s local supermarket was hit.

My wife, who is French, mentioned that my in-laws, still unaware of the growing worries about butter scarcity, had been puzzled by her grandfather’s insistence that they stock up.

Of course, those in the industry — dairy farmers, butter producers, pastry makers — had been tracking the rising butter prices and growing tensions between producers and retailers for months. They knew what was coming, and told me so when I started making calls.

Annabelle Cantin, the head of marketing and communications at La Trinitaine, a food company in Brittany that makes buttery treats, told me that consumers and the media were only noticing now because of empty shelves in supermarkets.

“From a professional standpoint,” she said, “it has been visible for much longer.”

The Federation of Bakery Companies, another industry organization I reached out to, had even put out a statement in May, warning that “many companies will be struggling in the coming months, amidst relative indifference.”

I also recruited the help of our intern in the Paris bureau, Eloise Stark, who went to bakeries and supermarkets in Paris to see what shoppers and pastry makers had to say. One bakery told her that it had slightly increased prices, but only on the more fancy butter-based pastries, not on the sacrosanct croissant.

To get a better understanding of butter’s place in French culture and cooking, I reached out to Jean-Robert Pitte, a geographer and gastronomy specialist at the Sorbonne. He explained that France had long been divided in half, between a butter-using north and an olive oil-consuming south.

I later got confirmation from an impeccable source: my 89-year-old French grandmother, a Parisian whose family is originally from northern France but who married a southerner from the Hautes-Alpes region, where olive oil is more prominent.

“In my family, we bought groundnut oil for salads, but all the cooking was done with butter,” she said on the phone. I had reached her in the midst of her grocery shopping (she had got her hands on some butter, but not the renowned Beurre d’Isigny that she usually bought).

My grandmother also confirmed that there was something of a butter craze after the Second World War, which Professor Pitte had mentioned in our interview.

“At the beginning of the war we didn’t have ration cards yet and I had to wait in line for two hours just to get an eighth of butter,” she said, recalling how her father and uncle would travel to Normandy to get some directly from dairy farmers. “Because it was illegal, they had pockets made on the insides of their jackets and hid the butter in there.”

“So you can bet that after the war, people splurged,” she said, laughing.

Years ago, my wife introduced me to semi-salted butter, and I’ve never looked back. It’s simple and delicious when spread on a fresh baguette. Regular butter now tastes, well, boring.

Luckily, we haven’t run out ourselves. The last time I went shopping at the supermarket, there was some butter left on the shelves, right next to the margarine and other substitutes that previous shoppers had spurned.

I’m still monitoring the situation, and it is unclear how long the shortages will linger. Let’s hope they subside, because the holiday season in France — yule logs for Christmas, King cakes in January, crepes in February — is when the butter really gets going.