Oh my god, that’s the smell.
It didn’t take long for what I’d put in the pot to makes its glorious transition. Just when I thought we had a close relationship, butter and I, it revealed a side it must’ve been keeping from me all these years. I just wasn’t ready I guess.
Myself, the pot, and the butter were all in the kitchen of my in-laws, a warm space combining the modernity of a high-tech convection oven with the rusticity of dark wood and stone tiling. A fifteen year-old, wise beyond her years and already a culinary enthusiast, was my tutor for the day. Weeks earlier I’d mentioned my interest in French cuisine so my sister-in-law agreed to do a lesson swap: cooking in exchange for English.
The recette for our chocolate Madeleines called for the butter to be browned, which seemed insignificant at the time. Then while hovering over it moments later the olfactory revelation hit me – it’s the exact smell I get every time I walk into a great pastry shop. That flavor I could never put my finger on, the taste that made everything so perfectly French, was as simple as browned butter. Well I say simple, but without my teenage safety net who knows what sorts of weird colors that pot would’ve seen.
It’s a good example of how le beurre has become such a cornerstone here. Ask someone the key to French cuisine and they’ll often joke “butter, butter, and more butter!” But it doesn’t just go into their mouths, it comes out as well. To a Frenchman a black eye is a “black butter eye”. The expression to have your cake and eat it too exists as “To have the butter and the money for the butter”. In the old days the word beurre was even slang for money or cash.
This phenomenon should be surprising me less and less, the blurred line between food and language. In Les Tidbits I mentioned how six-pack abs are called tablettes de chocolat. I suppose if ever there were a place to mix your food with your words, it’s here. And if ever there were a perfect color for butter, it’s most definitely brown.