Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Great Butter Crisis


I've been hearing for a week or so that the shelves in the supermarkets that normally hold dozens of different brands of butter are empty. We ran out of butter on Tuesday so I called in to Intermarché to see if the stories were true. They were. There was not a single block of butter on the shelves. I bought some vegetable oil spread. The young woman on the checkout had no idea when they would get their next delivery of butter.

"Dear clients, as a result of a production problem, we are not able to offer you our full range of butter.
We apologize for the inconvenience. The Management."

Le Figaro Madame had a handy guide to things you can cook without butter the same day. For baking they suggest using various fruits and vegetables as substitutes (avocado, zucchini, beetroot, apple purée) or you could use any number of vegetable oils, or nut butters, or cottage cheese (see below for why cheese is available but butter isn't...). For savoury dishes you are directed to oils, margarine and duck fat. For your morning tartine you should think about oil based spreads, fruit butters or maple syrup.

The Figaro article, and others, explained that the crisis of supply has come about due to a combination of factors. First, after the milk quota system was scrapped France was flooded with both domestically produced and imported milk. As a consequence the price per litre, which was already below break even for many farmers, plummeted. Dairy farmers reined in their production, and I've heard that about half of dairy farmers have given up (usually converting to cereal farming or selling their land to their neighbours, who cereal farm). So now we have a shortage of milk, and it is manifesting itself primarily as a shortage of butter. 

The price of butter has been steadily increasing since the abolishment of the quota, and it is now twice as expensive as it was twelve months ago. Also to blame for the gaps in the shelves is the rigidity of the big supermarkets purchasing and supply chains. 

Supposedly the crisis has been excacerbated by a spike in demand for French bakery products overseas, especially in Asia and the Middle East.  Also, recent studies which have found that butter is not the risk to one's health that many Western consumers had long believed, have seen people gleefully returning to butter (for the record, we've always used butter).

Bakers are talking about increasing the price of croissants by about 5¢. Goodness only knows how expensive galettes des rois will be come January! One baked goods small factory manager from central France talked about only being able to source a tonne of butter a week, when her business needs three tonnes. She has cut workers hours by 70%. The shortage is being described as the worst since World War II.

For those dairy farmers still in business, many are worried that they won't see a share of the price increases, but there are opportunities if you can establish a positive relationship with your local milk processor. One of the tactics being tried by dairy farmers is to launch their own 'local milk' brand, emphasising the nutritional qualities due to the care taken with the cows own diet. The milk is sold at a higher price, but consumers understand that the food miles are short and the farmers have negotiated a fair price for themselves from the milk factory. Near us the milk comes from a radius of no more than 25 km from the Laiterie de Verneuil, and is sold in the same geographical region. The dairy farmer is paid 40¢ per litre -- nearly 10¢ a litre more than the average price paid to producers.

However, modern cows produce milk that is lower in fat than in the old days, so there just isn't enough to go round. French producers have historically focused on cheese because it gives a better return when milk prices are low, as they have been for the last decade or so. On top of this we are in the season when milk production is lowest. You need 22 litres of milk to produce a kilo of butter.

No one knows when the situation will return to normal. Of course people have been panic buying and hoarding. The French are the biggest consumers of butter in the world, eating 8 kg per person per year. Margarine just doesn't cut it for French pastries. So this butter crisis is deeper than just lack of supply, but impacts on a campaign by artisan bakers to combat industrially produced croissants and brioches made by workers who simply empty a packet of pre-mixed ingredients into the mixer and add water without knowing anything about how these pastries are made.


I discovered on Wednesday that there is butter to be had, if you know where to go. I bought a block of Verneuil demi-sel for €2.60 from the cheese truck at Loches market. The woman who runs it says she has no problem with supply from Verneuil and another small scale artisan producer. When I called in to my favourite bakery in Loches to buy a baguette they were displaying kouign amann on the counter. No butter crisis here then, clearly. I quizzed the owner, who also said that she had no problem, her butter came from Verneuil. It seems that the Laiterie de Verneuil is making sure their small local artisan customers are kept supplied. There is very much a culture of rewarding loyal custom and encouraging short supply chains in rural France. It's good to hear that the third biggest butter producer in France respects this civilised way of doing business.

It turns out that this is a global problem. Check out this article about the Australian situation in the Conversation. The info graphics are good, and I see that Australian's consume half as much butter as the French per head.

29 comments:

  1. Very informative post on an unusual crisis. Just like you, Susan, I never use "fake" butter.

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    1. I found the cumulative and rather complicated reasons for the shortage fascinating. What lazy journalists like to call a 'perfect storm'.

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  2. I am now butter conscious... having discovered that I get stomach ache/pain/etc. if I eat anything with large quantities of PALM oil in, viz: most margerines.... so I have reverted to butter.
    And we have always eaten the butter illustrated... purely 'cos it is local!!
    There is no shortage of their butter in Descartes SuperU... but, all the others are depleted... and less of a shortage of demi-sel, which I prefer.
    I looked at trying organic marge... until I found that they used palm oil...organic palm oil noless... but was it ethical, organic palm oil?? So I gave that a miss, too.
    So, locally, I think we are probably luck with Vernie's and Poitou-Charante butters. Interestingly, M.Salais who supplies Vernie's with his milk, cut his maize for silage very late this year... it was very rich in corn... normally it is Chinease stirfry sized cobs...and the stems much greener and moist.
    So perhaps a richer food regime?

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    1. Maybe he's part of the 'local milk' scheme, part of which is to feed the cattle premium fodder to enrich the milk. One of the reasons there is a butter shortage is that cows are fed poorer quality feed these days because farmers can't afford the good stuff.

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  3. Looking closer at your picture, it would appear that all the 'spreads' have vanished???
    Odd!

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    1. No butter, and the spreads are looking a bit thin too.

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  4. No news stories in the US about a butter shortage. We don't use that much on a daily basis, but when I do buy some, it's Irish butter strictly from grass-fed cows. It's far superior to the standard American brands. However, at about $6.00 per pound, it's a bit pricey. Here's hoping it won't go up from there. We also use olive oil and duck fat.

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  5. No mention of lard? Lard (saindoux makes the best pie crusts, and is useful in many other dishes. I'm glad to have five 250 gram blocks of buttter in the freezer right now. I didn't buy butter because I feared a shortage, but just because we keep a supply on hand. In 2003, when we arrive here, the least expensive butter was 85 eurocents per block. Now it seems to be about 1.30€. I went to Intermarché yesterday but I didn't look in the butter department, even though Walt had told me about the butter crisis when I got back to Saint-Aignan on Tuesday.

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    1. No, no mention of lard in the Figaro article. I thought they were trying a bit hard and some of the alternatives were a bit trendy.

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    2. Lard and pork belly are very trendy in hip California restaurants, I've heard.

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    3. We are making a dish using lard today: Mexican tamale pie.

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    4. Sounds good. I like lard for savoury pastries too, but don't buy it very much all the same.

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  6. According to a recent article in Le Monde, there is no milk shortage in France. It's just that butter producers at the industrial level are exporting much of France's butter production because they get much higher profits selling abroad than in France. In the U.S., butter is back in favor, and even McDonald's has replaced margarine with butter in its recipes. And the Chinese have discovered butter and have started importing vast quantities of the stuff. In other countries, French butter (or Irish butter) is a luxury product, commanding premium prices (like French wine), whereas in France butter and wine are staple commodities. So butter will come back in France, but at much higher prices. Globalization...

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    1. I looked at the export figures when researching this post but decided not to go into too much detail. The jump in exports is extraordinary, even to countries like Canada. I didn't know that about McDonald's. I was quite interested that the oil-based spread I bought in Intermarché, at €2.85 was more expensive than the butter I bought at the market.

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    2. In my experience, a lot of French people eat (or used to eat) a lot of margarine or other oil-based spreads in the past. Some 1960s-era cookbooks call consistently for Astra margarine in their recipes, not butter.

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    3. That's interesting. That would have been real margarine in those days too, and would have been much the same in the anglophone countries. Marge was always popular in the UK because it was believed to make better pastries and was cheaper.

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    4. I remember the first time I ever tasted "real" butter. It was in about 1960 and we had gone to visit my mother's aunt in South Carolina. She and her husband kept cows and churned their own butter. We had always eaten margarine, and butter tasted gamy and strange to us. What is "real margarine" anyway?

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    5. Margarine has to have a fat content of 80%. Modern oil-based spreads are usually not technically margarine because their fat content is lower (and there are some differences in manufacturing and ingredients too).

      I don't think I would have tasted margarine or oil-based spread until I was in my teens, so sometime in the 1970s. Consequently, I don't like the taste or mouthfeel, even of the modern ones. They don't melt like butter and are just not the same. I grew up with homemade butter.

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    6. American butter has a fat content of 80%. French butter has a fat content of 82%. It makes a difference.

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  7. We still have butter on the shelves here but nowhere near as much.

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    1. It seems to depend on which supermarket one goes to here. Some have a bit, others have none.

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  8. Thanks, Susan, for the information. We are butter-only consumers but don't have a very high consumption, mainly with our weekly oysters in winter. Jean Michel prefers Echiré butter but there is nothing left on our supermarket shelves. We were able to buy butter from the cheesemonger at the market without any trouble though.

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    1. My laitière didn't have any today when she called at the house. She doesn't make butter much anyway, and I don't normally buy it from her even when she does, as it is always unsalted. I was a bit surprised she wasn't reacting to the market though.

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    2. Do you not like unsalted butter? So strange to me. In the U.S. of the 60s and 70s, you could get only salted butter. Unsalted butter in France was such a revelation to me. It seemed purer and fresher.

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    3. I'll eat either but Simon doesn't like unsalted.

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