For those who haven’t read the news this week, France is in the grip of one of the worst disasters since WW2. There’s a national butter shortage.
It began a week ago when the nation’s retail magnates thought it would be prudent to slap apologetic signs onto supermarket fridges, appealing to French shoppers to refrain from panic buying the modest supplies of butter that remained. Where I’m from, this would be akin to an Aussie weatherman announcing there was about to be a prolonged power cut on a scorching 47-degree summer’s day… but please don’t buy all the cold beer in the pub before it runs out. Unsurprisingly, the butter shelves are empty, although there’s still margarine— no self-respecting French person would consider it a substitute, least of all buy a croissant made with the dastardly stuff, so for now, we wait. There’s even a social-media hashtag to help us through. At #beurregate, you can now auction a single piece of buttered toast and commiserate with bereft butter lovers as the nation holds its breath in hope of a speedy supply solution.
Without going into a lengthy economic analysis as to how we arrived at this butter-less point in history, let’s just say it was entirely inevitable and frustratingly typical of current French economic policy. Rather than allow more competition, the French supermarket arena is dominated by a select few. When the EU ended the milk quota system in 2015, milk prices plummeted, but only until the stockpile was drained. Since then global dietary trends have transformed the marketplace. China has now embraced the croissant, (a quarter of its weight is butter) and the West is increasingly shifting the focus of the dietary devil onto sugar; forgiving butter and it’s cousins cream and cheese, for all their supposed sins and crowning it the new healthy fat. Dairy is the new buzz and international demand has soared.
In Germany, butter prices rose this year by 72% but in France, just 6%; until now. Why? French supermarkets fix their prices with suppliers just once a year in February. Since the price was fixed, international demand has skyrocketed and French farmers, quite justifiably, have chosen to export at a higher price than selling to local supermarkets. So whilst the supermarkets grapple with the reality of market forces, the rest of the world gets to enjoy French butter; not bad if you’re in New York or Beijing, but certainly not great if you’re a French pastry chef.
This recipe is my nod to butter austerity; there’s not a knob required. Its taken from one of my favorite recipe books, Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. Like so many of Simon’s recipes, it’s a homage to the old adage less is more. Don’t be tempted to add or subtract anything; it’s utterly perfect just as it is, but, as with anything simple, it relies on quality ingredients. You don’t have to use multi-coloured peppers and tomatoes. I do, only because their kaleidoscope of colours make me happy, especially now, as temperatures dip and the days grow shorter.
I honestly think this would have to be one of my ultimate Friday night dinners; perfect for a chilly autumnal night by the fire with a good bottle of red and a crunchy baguette to soak up the red garlicky juices…although, if I’m truly honest, it’s even better if the baguette is buttered. But, we won’t think about that. Not now.