It’s about 7:30 p.m. in France, and right now, just about anyone who’s sitting down to dinner has, on their table, a little basket of bread. It’s likely been freshly cut from the day’s delivery of baguettes (if you’re in a restaurant), or from the baguette that the bonne femme picked up at her favorite boulangerie on her way home.
One thing that likely will not make its appearance next to the bread is butter. Because, you see, the French do not serve their bread with butter.
Except, of course, when they do.
And they do so, quite more often than the dictum would let us believe. Here are four ways they often serve butter with bread:
1. With a cheese course: The first time I ever ordered a cheese course, at the Restaurant Chartier at the age of 16, I was surprised to find a pat of butter delivered aside my 2.50-franc wedge of Brie. (Yes, it truly cost 2.5o francs–about 50 cents at the time. See the menu, below, dated 20 March 1977, as proof). Now the wedge of Camembert goes for 2.50 Euros–about $3.95! (Check out the current menu).
Yet believe it or not, the creamy butter slathered on the bread and eaten aside the funky-earthy-mushroomy Camembert really works. It works with Brie, too (which is pretty much exactly like Camembert, just made in another region). I’m wondering, however, if there are other French cheeses that get served with butter. Anyone know?
2. With Charcuterie: The most revelatory way with butter is, in my mind, on the “Assiette Anglaise”—that appetizer plate of cured meats, such as salamis and prosciutto. The fresh, sweet, creamy butter on bread, alongside that rosy-salty intensely rich meats—it’s just so good.
3. With Breakfast: Tartine (French bread with jam and butter) and a fortifying cup of café-au-lait is about the best way to set oneself straight in the morning. And don’t skimp on the butter. Abundance is key.
4. With bread, at lunch and dinner. True, 99 times out of 100, you will not be served butter with your bread at an anyday meal. But once in a blue moon, you will. Years ago, when I was served butter with my bread at a somewhat touristy restaurant near Montmartre in Paris, I asked the owner if he served the butter because tourists expected it. Taken somewhat aback, he said, no, he liked to serve bread and butter as a bit of an “amuse bouche”—a simple appetizer before dinner. French bread and French butter is, of course, special enough to get the appetite roused.