In an oversaturated market where diners are exposed to endless choices, setting the tone right from the get-go counts. This is why more fine-dining restaurants here are taking steps to make sure they impress guests with their opening act. In this case, by elevating the humble bread and butter that is always the first item on the table.
At fine-dining stalwart Les Amis, executive chef Sebastien Lepinoy begins dinner with four golden cubes of Le Ponclet butter served on a black slate, to be had with sourdough bread. The product is so rare that Lepinoy had to send his resume to David Akpamagbo, owner of Le Ponclet in Brittany, France, to convince him to supply it.
“(David) wanted to find out more about Les Amis and be sure that our goals and values were aligned, which is why I had to submit my resume,” says Lepinoy. “Le Ponclet is a traditional butter, hence David prefers it to be served alongside a cuisine that respects French techniques.” Les Amis is currently the only restaurant in Asia to serve this strong earthy spread.
Kirk Westaway, chef de cuisine at modern French restaurant Jaan, says: “It seems like a small part of the meal, but it starts the whole dining experience on a luxurious note, if you use a good quality butter.”
To be sure, butter suffered a bit of a smeared rep back in the early 2000s, when health fanatics called it out for being packed with fats. Substitutes like olive oil and margarine were quick to step in. But butter kept resurfacing. Then, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that it’s really sugar – found in carbohydrates like bread and potatoes – that causes weight gain. Suddenly, good fats (and butter) was back in vogue.
“It seems like a small part of the meal, but it starts the whole dining experience on a luxurious note, if you use a good quality butter.”
– Kirk Westaway, chef de cuisine, Jaan
And as Guy Martin, chef-owner of Le Grand Vefour, the oldest restaurant in Paris, points out, rich food and healthy eating need not always be in opposition. “I try to put not too much cream or butter in my dishes, but butter is good for the heart, you know? It’s vitamin A – you need it,” he says.
Fine though a meal at Les Amis may be, it’s the Le Ponclet butter the French restaurant serves at the start of dinner that is the eye-opener. In spring and autumn, its colour is an enticing golden yellow, due to the cows’ herb-based diet; in winter, a pale blonde, as the cows feed mostly on hay and barley. We look at how this butter is made.
01: Cows graze in open fields abound with natural herbs.
02: Only ancient Celtic species and cross-bred cows (that are almost extinct) are bred for milk.
03: The milk from different cows are never mixed, to conserve the specific taste of each.
04: As the milk is left to cool naturally, the resultant cream and milk are allowed to culture slowly and develop a strong, distinctive flavour profile.
05: The skimmed cream is then used in the process of hand-churning the butter.
06: The result is washed with spring water from the surrounding Arree mountains to rinse off the last bits of buttermilk, then carefully dried by hand.
07: Butter is then left to mature in a specific-temperature room at the Ponclet workshop.
DETAILS THAT MATTER
From small-batch producers to making one’s own butter, we look at four restaurants here that are placing more emphasis on good ol’ bread and butter.
Back to basics
Les Amis chef Sebastien Lepinoy shares some fun facts about butter, beyond it just being a spread for bread.
o1: Salted versus unsalted. What’s the function of each?
Unsalted butter is more commonly used by bakers, who would not use salted butter as it turns brown more easily due to the lower water content, ruining the pastry. Red meats and poultry, on the other hand, would do well with some good salted butter (unless the dish also calls for salty ingredients like cheese and cream).
02: What is browned butter and how is it used?
Browned butter is made using unsalted butter, so chefs can control the seasoning. It is made by melting solid into liquid, so the water content evaporates and the milk solids are toasted, thus turning brown. This creates a delicious nutty flavour and aroma that is the essence of rich French pastries. At Les Amis, the technique of browning butter is used when making our madeleines (small butter cakes).
03: What is the best way to store butter in Singapore?
In the fridge at 4 deg C. Butter can also be placed in the freezer – it will not spoil. Previously in France, butter factories would produce more butter during summer and freeze it. These blocks would then be sold at the end of the year. This was what we called “Christmas Butter”.