It’s a staple of sauces and baking, alike. Without it, the croissant would be a leaden mass of flour, and the jambon-beurre sandwich missing a certain something. The Rouen Cathedral is said to have been built in part on the back of butter fees, and even today, in the western region of Brittany, salted butter is something of a religion.
So an empty butter shelf in France is like a dry baguette: deeply disconcerting.
But with a slump in European dairy production and a surge in world demand, that is exactly what some French are encountering in their stores.
Alarmed by news reports about the shortage, Laurence Meyre, a 53-year-old professor shopping in a supermarket in southern Paris one recent morning, said she had made sure to stock up. “I thought to myself: Not having butter in France, that’s appalling,” she said.
In truth, the #shortages, though noticeable nationwide, have been sporadic, and France gives no appearance of grinding to a halt. But in a country that by some measures consumes more butter per head than anyplace else, that is a fine point.
And so French news outlets are giving advice on how to replace butter or to churn your own. One headline asked whether there would be butter for Christmas. The agriculture minister faced questions in Parliament. Online, shoppers shared pictures of empty shelves, and jokers ran fake advertisements offering small amounts of butter for ludicrous prices. Inevitably, a BeurreGate hashtag popped up.
Last year, France consumed about 18 pounds of butter per capita, according to statistics from a coming report by the International Dairy Federation. That is over twice the European Union average, and more than three times the figure in the United States.
Gérard Calbrix, the head of economic affairs at the Association of French Dairy Processors, said the industry had been expecting a crunch since spring. “Over the past year, from June of 2016 to this summer, milk production has fallen in Europe,” he said. “At the same time, demand for butter has increased, on all world markets.”