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Butter bliss

(article, Meredith Escudier)

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A fresh radish, when slit longitudinally, can accommodate a sliver of hard butter. Dipped in salt, it is ready to be crunched. The salt heightens the tangy taste, and the butter mellows the sometimes overly strident flavor of an end-of-season radish. Moreover, the palate registers surprise at the contrasting textures of velvety smooth butter and snappy jazzy radish. 

Creating this combination takes work, but it’s worth it: Slit, slice, insert, dip, crunch. And again. Slit (converse a little), slice (pause to reflect), insert (wonder out loud), dip (forward the conversation), crunch. 

I have come to think of this convivial group exercise as a tender sport, in which each participant, intent on a common goal, also suffices unto himself, concentrating on the success of his or her own work, a bit like yoga. I call it radishing.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Radishes, butter, and sea salt are a classic combination."]"Don’t fiddle with your food!" was a frequent admonishment when I was growing up in America; it was meant to hasten the task of finishing dinner. But in France, where I’ve lived long enough to respond to many a radish, fiddling means fine-tuning, not dawdling. 

Fiddling here has a level of respectability, complete with the promise of concrete rewards: the extracted meat from a crab claw, for example, or the growing mound of crayfish flesh from a queue de langoustine. Little by little, thanks to assiduous concentration, several mouthfuls of bounty will build up on the plate, tangible proof of painstaking exploration.

Today’s reward, however, is a perfectly proportioned radis au beurre with the amount of butter and salt expressly calculated to offset the base size of each radish. Demands vary (each radish is an individual!), but a tireless and alert fiddler, even clumsy at first, will surely prevail in time. 

As we radish along, I’ve become aware that a couple of different schools of butter treatment have emerged around the table. Some of us are using our spreading knives to peel butter off a wide surface, bringing it up in thin coils with a repeated scraping motion. Others are cutting off thick hunks of butter from the end of the stick and sandwiching them chunkily inside the split radish. 

Some of us might be finger painters at heart, I decide, whereas others are apparently born bricklayers.

“Are you a butter scraper, or a butter cutter?” someone inquires, and we’re off on a philosophical debate worthy of the French baccalaureate exam. Pierre is a cutter, it appears. No surprises there. He can be cut and dried at times, and quite curt on the phone. He’s not above interrupting others either, unconcerned about deflating the arc of a story in his haste to cut to the chase. But Antoine is different. Suave and sweet, he’ll notice when someone is left out of the conversation, humoring the lost soul back in with a friendly wink. Would he be a scraper? I watch his concentration as he gradually coaxes a fine yellow sheet of butter off the top, bringing it on home slowly, surely, progressively. Of course he is.

Butter is one of the basic cooking fats in French cuisine. Other fats are popular, too, depending on the region. Goose grease reigns supreme in the southwest, coating and simultaneously preserving duck, goose, chicken, and pork in the form of glistening confits. Mediterranean cooking is defined by ribbons of olive oil poured over fresh tomatoes and basil or cod and garlic. Peanut oil is there in a pinch and handles deep frying. Corn oil has its followers and so does colza oil. But butter remains the ingredient of choice for traditional French cooking, from Brittany in the northwest to Lyon in the southeast. 

When you think Paul Bocuse — the famous Lyon-based chef — think butter. His recipe for tarte tatin, the upside-down apple pie, actually contains more butter than flour. How is this possible? Butter is de rigueur for the crusty pastry, of course, but butter is also responsible for caramelizing the baking apples. Gulping, I flip through the pages of his cookbook, only to confront more butter-based sauces. Butter is everywhere.

Since the advent of nouvelle cuisine several decades ago, however, the diet-conscious have started to steer clear of butter excess. More and more French people are opting for lighter cooking, sometimes trying to do away with butter altogether. They manage this initially by eliminating butter in cooking, then by avoiding pastry. 


h1.Featured recipe

This recipe from Deborah Madison turns the classic French snack of radishes with butter and salt into an open-faced sandwich.


Reformed heretics will wax eloquent about their crazy buttery youth. “Remember dipping buttered baguette into steaming coffee?”

“Oh my God, I can still see the yellow swirls swimming around in my café au lait.” (A butter cutter?)

“How about rye bread and butter along with a plate of oysters?”

“Right, those little round slices of bread with shallots and vinaigrette.” (A butter scraper?)

“And what about butter and Roquefort cheese together! Can you believe we did that?” (Uh-oh, a new school altogether: the butter masher!)

Yet put a plateful of spring radishes on the table with a dish of fresh, cool butter, and a different story unfolds. 

Butter endures. It will remain one of humanity’s worthy achievements. And no one in France — be they cutters, scrapers, mashers, or even melters — will contradict you.

p(bio). Meredith Escudier lives in the south of France, where she is a columnist for the magazine Blablablah._

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