While Catholicism has long been dominant in France, the country’s true religion is butter. In Gallic gastronomy, butter is everywhere—from flaky croissants to beurre blancs to Joël Robuchon making mashed potatoes with an obscene amount of the cultured, churned cow’s milk. “There is no French cooking without butter,” says chef Ludo Lefebvre.
Lefebvre, who now lives in Los Angeles and runs Petit Trois and the Michelin-starred Trois Mec, ventured back to his homeland to see how Bordier makes its world-renowned butter. The chef, born in the Burgundian town of Auxerre is no stranger to butter. He has a tattoo of escargot on his hand, which anyone who has had them in Burgundy knows those little snails are prepared with enough fat to clog an artery. For the PBS show Mind of a Chef, he visited Bordier’s factory in Brittany to see the craft that goes into this key building block of his cooking.
Jean-Yves Bordier founded his butter creamery back in 1985, at a time when France’s beloved beurre was becoming predominantly made with large-scale factory methods. At his creamery, he embraced old-school techniques. Instead of being churned in a large, automated metal drum, the butter is kneaded on a round wooden table that spins allowing water to be expelled from the fat solids while still providing a nonstick surface. With up to 30 minutes of kneading, the butter achieves a smooth, velvety texture assisted by the salt that helps aerate the mixture. All the while, the person running the kneading table as it spins is listening for the water leaving the butter and touching it to ensure the right consistency. “They are keepers of tradition here—a machine cannot do that,” Lefebvre says.
Chefs can actually request the recipe be changed to be customized to their specifications and then shaped how they’d like. One chef in particular gave Bordier’s business a big boost—the aforementioned Robuchon. In 1990, he was crowned Chef of the Century by the restaurant guide Galut et Millau. He was a towering figure in global gastronomy, so when Robuchon did something, other chefs followed. And that included buying butter from his preferred purveyor, Bordier, because many great chefs acknowledge a central truth. “Chefs, we don’t do that much actually. We just have good ingredients, and after that cooking is so easy,” Lefebvre says. “If we don’t have these guys, I would be nobody in the kitchen.”