January 12, 2024
Dear Frenchly Readers,
In 1869 margarine was invented by the French chemist, Hippolyte Mèges-Mouries. At that time, fats and oils were hard to source in Europe, and the Emperor Napoleon the III requested a cheap alternative to butter, one that would be suitable for his army fighting the Prussians. For this invention, Napoleon had also offered a prize of money.
That first margarine was beef tallow, or suet, churned smooth and flavored with milk and Mèges-Mouries called it margarine for the pearly drops the fat formed when whipped, after the Greek word “margaron,” which means “pearl.” (It is also the root for the name, Margaret.)
Soon, the Americans caught on and margarine took off as an American product, made from cottonseed and other oils, as beef fats and butters became scarce and then rationed in the Second World War. At first, margarine looked like lard–it was white. People didn’t really cotton on to that, so food coloring was added to make it look a bit more like butter, which naturally has a slight yellow color to it. This butter substitute caught on in Europe and the U.S. and became a wartime staple, really taking off in the post-war boom of the 1950s in the U.S.
But the French were not convinced. And once rationing was over, they came to their senses. Margarine tasted of plastic and smelled funny, and, after all, the French are purists. Whole foods, as pure as they come, are the basis of so much French cooking. I wrote a Le Weekend last year about butter and why French butter is so much yummier than any other butter anywhere. And, I thought that, to the best of my knowledge, it would be impossible to make French pastries without butter.
But that’s not exactly true. In recent years, vegan baking has taken up residence in some corners of France, and margarine is back on the menu.
Yesterday, I thought it would be interesting to ask my co-Editor Cat Rickman, recently back from France, about her favorite brands of butter when in France and when at home in the U.S. She sometimes waxes poetic about a certain brand of butter that she’ll eat practically out of the wrapper when she descends at Charles de Gaulle, so I became intrigued.
And, also, I wanted to see what Cat thought about the rise of margarine in some vegan bakeries in France.
Cat, you love to bake. And I know you love to use pure butter. What is your go-to butter to bake with in the U.S. and when in France what do you like to use? Why?
My favorite butter to use, both in the U.S. and France, is Isigny Sainte-Mère. (Though it’s way more expensive to buy here.) I sometimes cheap out with the store brand stuff if I need a lot for baking, but if I just want a great butter on bread with some fig jam, Isigny is my go-to. It’s just so good. I’ll eat it like cheese. Especially their salted butter, which has these visible crystals of flake salt that give it some texture, while the butter melts in your mouth. And it’s great for baking! It’s what Dominique Ansel uses to make his cronuts and other viennoiseries. If it’s good enough for him, it’s definitely good enough for me.
What are the differences between French butter and American butter—and don’t give me percentages, what do you actually notice as you bake or eat that are different?
French butter–and European butter in general–has a higher fat content than American butter, which gives it a much richer taste. It’s also soft straight out of the fridge, so you don’t really need to pre-soften it. And it’s often cultured, which gives it more of a cheesy, savory flavor.
Do you prefer salted or unsalted butter?
Salted! Even when baking. I almost never buy unsalted butter. I just leave out the additional salt when baking.
How much do you love butter? Like would you eat it on crackers? Or potato chips? (I would, I mean…I do!)
If it’s good butter, I will just eat slabs of it on bread or toast. There’s a Danish word, tandsmør, that refers to a layer of butter so thick you can see teeth marks in it. I live my life by this concept.
Would you ever use margarine? Why not?
Personally, I don’t use margarine. I just don’t think it tastes very good. And even though it’s now being marketed as “vegan butter” (a truly impressive rebrand), I still associate it with diet culture and food restriction.
But it’s going into favor in France now. Vegan bakeries all over the place (in Paris at least). Is this a new trend? Here is a famous one…and here are croissants with “vegan butter” and here are vegan French pastries in L.A.
There has definitely been a boom in vegan bakeries in France! There are lots of talented bakers in France trying to make French pastry more inclusive. Not too long ago, we published an interview with Amanda Bankert of Boneshaker Donuts in Paris, who slowly replaced the normal pastries at her shop with vegan ones to see if anyone would notice. They didn’t, and now the bakery is totally vegan, which is pretty impressive!
Why did it take so long? Margarine was invented by a French person in 1869.
You know the French. They’re very into their dairy products. France also has a powerful dairy lobby similar to the one in the U.S. I think trying to do anything out of the ordinary food-wise in France can be a risk, but people are becoming more conscious of dietary restrictions and more willing to accommodate them.
Ok: It’s a new year, folks. Why not go the vegan route? Or maybe you’re one of those weirdos who puts coconut oil in your coffee… If you are, do you bake with it, too? I have and… not bad, actually.
À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay, below, about when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the American Church in Paris and gave a speech that no one has ever been able to find again.
It’s going to rain again in Maine tomorrow. 2023 was the world’s hottest year on record (bad news) and Maine’s wettest (second, only, to 1917, but if our calendar went from May to May, 2023/24 might be much wetter). It poured the other day. Today feels like April. Tomorrow it will pour again. Every day after a storm, I am amazed that our old grandmother spruce, at the front of our house, is still standing. I wrote about the rain in Maine for the Boston Globe this fall. I had no idea it would still be raining in January.
I have picked up a bunch of movies for the weekend, including My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, a two-header about a young boy and his family in the South of France based on the memoirs of the French writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol. I am hoping the whole family can tuck in, if we don’t lose power, to watch. I also got La Cage aux Folles.
This time of year, I like to make stews. But I feel a little weird making them when I can walk comfortably outside in a t-shirt and sneakers to get the mail.
Last week I made a chocolate cake with a cream cheese Calvados frosting for my older son’s birthday. This weekend, I am not done with chocolate. I follow Aleksandra Crapanzano on Instagram, who published a book called Gateau last year. And I was thinking about her chocolate orange cake as a perfect way to bake away the weird winter blues. Also, she suggests French butter because it has more fat, which seemed on target for today.
Have a good chocolate-cake kinda weekend.
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