When Your Greatest Treat is Butter

Packet of French butter

This is my second memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the first part, it’s here – Sardine Cans In the Dirt
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In my memory it was once every three or four weeks, but it may have been more, or less, often. Probably not at all in the depths of winter. The men in our house, of which there were two, would make the long walk down our mountain to the nearest village at the bottom. They would go on market day. They had no money, but they would take things we had grown or produced on our mountain to trade for things that we couldn’t produce ourselves. They would leave very early in the morning and come back late in the evening. The main thing they would bring back was flour so that we could make bread. Enough flour to bake a fresh loaf of bread every day until their next trip. There was always a treat for the adults in their haul; coffee, and for the next few days after a market trip, the morning air would be filled with the scent of coffee to complement that of the freshly baked bread.

I don’t recall what other items were in their bags, because the only thing us children really cared about, the one thing we would be most anxiously waiting for when they returned, was butter. We made goat’s cheese on our mountain, but not butter. We knew that the morning after one of their trips, and only that one morning after, our freshly baked breakfast bread would be spread generously with the deliciously rich, sweet, golden butter. When your daily food is simple and basic, then butter becomes a luxurious treat.

I would sit with the other children around the huge solid wood slab table, bathing in the glow of the morning sun that crept in through the windows. We sported huge smiles, and our wide excited eyes would be drilling into my mother’s back, willing her to hurry up as she cut up the rustic loaf, then unwrapped the paper from around the heavenly gold bar, and slathered it over the slices. A plate piled high would be placed in the middle of the table; in my mind, it radiated light. Within minutes it was gone, and we would be on with our day.

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Butter Photo attribution – By Lionel Allorge (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

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64 responses to “When Your Greatest Treat is Butter

  1. I can taste the butter right now! I loved this, as well as the first memoir of this time. I still think of butter as one of the richest foods on earth! I never eat substitutes. like those awful things made with vegetable oil and colored with food coloring. Although I do confess to eating the butters that are mixed with a bit of olive oil, because they are more spreadable. But here is the all-important question–was there jam?

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    • Ah yes, you can’t beat real butter can you! I can’t remember whether we had jam up there or not – I know that those bread and butter breakfasts I was talking about were jam-less because it was all about the butter! But whether we had jam other times I’m not sure.

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  2. okay, I am going out to the kitchen right now and slather some butter on a piece of French bread–I understand the love of butter–and to this day it is still a treat for me–my mom did not like real butter (she grew up on a farm where they made their own) so we only had butter on holidays
    this is a fascinating look into your life — love the series

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    • Some lovely butter on really good bread is still a treat for me too – I wasn’t sure if that was just because of my childhood experience, but it seems that many people think of butter as a treat!

      Glad you’re enjoying the series (all two parts so far!) – I’ve given it its own menu tab at the top called ‘France’ so I certainly plan on writing more!

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  3. What a wonderful thing to have such small pleasures fill us with such happiness. I feel that kids today don’t have that same experience–there are so many choices and so many options for them that something as small as having buttered bread wouldn’t even register with them. Or maybe that’s just my perception, and perhaps parents have been saying the same thing for years. Either way, lovely post!

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    • I think kids really quickly adapt to their surroundings in that way – I spent a couple of years living in France, and even apart from that year in the Alps, the rest of it was pretty transient; staying with various people, living in a caravan at the bottom of someone’s garden, a couple of months in a commune etc, so all that time I was used to going without things and not having many possessions and so I appreciated little treats and pleasures. After that I went back to living with my Dad in England, and we had a pretty big nice house, he earned a good salary, so I never went without and I had lots of toys and everything, but I straight away adjusted and pretty much immediately failed to appreciate some of the simpler things that meant so much during my time in France! Suddenly needing much greater things to make me feel treated! Human nature I guess.

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      • But at least if we have the memories, we can remind ourselves how good we have it. I lived in some pretty horrible places as a poor college student, and now if I whine about something, I can look back and remember how much better I have it now. I’m not sure my kids will get the luxury of that same experience. I suppose I could always kick them out for a few weeks… πŸ˜‰

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  4. Yum. Butter and fresh bread–rustic bread. My mouth is watering. When I was small I used to hang around the woodstove until the bread came out of the oven…and wait for it to cool enough to cut (we didn’t have serrated knives then, (at least I don’t recall). And butter. It was all about the butter on fresh, still warm bread. I don’t recall jam either, like you, it was tall about he butter.

    Thanks for the welcome walk down memory lane, Vanessa. Haven’t see you for a while.

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    • I’m craving fresh baked rustic bread and butter now!

      I’ve scaled back a bit on the blogging lately, both in terms of my own posts, and commenting on others – not a conscious decision to do that, just the way things have been going! Nice to see you πŸ™‚

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  5. Vanessa, this makes me think of Heidi and the goat-cheese!
    Ah, butter is truly delicious! I never eat it anymore. Some margarines are pretty good at approximating the flavor these days, but nothing really quite does it. I always think of Julia Childe topping off almost anything she cooked with a tablespoon of butter to give it just the right velvety touch!
    As for bread, my grandmother baked bread all the time when my mother was growing up, but by the time I came along, she had given that up. But she did make biscuits! I don’t mean what the British call biscuits and the Americans call cookies. I mean a type of small quick-bread roll, typically Southern American. My grandmother’s were delicious! For breakfast, lunch, or whenever – with a slice of turkey on Christmas morning! My mother said that when she was little and her grandfather lived with them (that’s the man in my interview picture on Limebirds), my grandmother made a pan of biscuits every single morning because he loved them so much! They ate fried salt pork with them! And yet their arteries seemed to hold up OK! LOL

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    • The goat cheese will be a tale for another day!

      I think someone else mentioned Heidi on my last post about the mountain because it seemed very familiar when you said it here – I just had a quick scan through the comments on it and couldn’t find it, but I didn’t read them all thoroughly, so it might be there somewhere!

      Yes, I remember the American biscuits from my time living there, they tasted rather like our scones over here. We’re using the word cookie more and more over here now, the smaller, plain type ones still get called biscuits, but anything big, or chewy or with chocolate chips gets called cookie.

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  6. Can so identify with butter (and that gold wrapping) being a luxury! It was sooo good.
    Enjoyed the glimpse of your childhood

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  7. This was such a cool read. I hope you continue to write about this experience. It’s so captivating, like, why you did this in the first place. I’m so intrigued!

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  8. We rarely had real butter when I was growing up. It was margarine. And there is no comparison to real, fresh sweet butter, is there? Most American butter is mass-produced, and I doubt it tastes as good as what you had in France. When I’m baking something special, I’ll buy imported Irish or French butter. There is a difference!

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  9. Having read the other comments, I can’t get Heidi out of my head now!

    The simple things are best when savoured. We do forget things we take for granted and it is only when we don’t have them that we realise how good they are. I feel this way about bacon πŸ™‚

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    • Yes, I think that’s why people who are vastly rich aren’t any more likely to be happy than the rest of us – we like the idea of being able to have anything we want, but I’m sure we wouldn’t appreciate things as much if we did…although having said that, I do appreciate bacon and I can pretty much have that as often as I want! πŸ˜‰

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  10. Butter is always a treat! It’s scrumptious…especially on hot homemade bread. Your post made me very hungry. My mom always made bread each week, but it’s not something I’ve ever wanted to do (although I wish someone would do it for me).

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  11. I generally don’t like butter, even on my toast, but your post made my mouth water! I can totally picture this scene, and the anticipation of eating something so basic yet so delightful.

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  12. Butter is one of the 1.001 reasons I could not be a Vegan. Even if I were a vegetarian, which I’m not.

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  13. I think that many people would view your time living in the mountains as some version of neglect, but it’s easy to see from your posts that you know better.

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  14. Love butter on fresh bread! Your post made me wonder one thing though, how did your mom bake the bread, having no electricity? Was there a brick oven?

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    • Hmm, good question! I think it must have been a wood burning stove. I really need to get together with my mother to fill in all the blanks in my memory from that year, so when I do, I’ll ask her that.

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      • It never dawned on me to wonder about the bread-baking; I worried about heat in the winter! Depending on how high up in the Alps you were, wood might have been scarce. It would have taken a lot of time (like all year) to chop enough wood to last through the winter, which is, let’s face it, most of the year. I once visited Switzerland in the spring, which is to say, June (!).

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      • My grandmother baked her bread in the early part of the 20th century in a wood-burning stove, and they also had a kerosene stove mostly for use in summer. The small town where they lived had no natural gas at that point. My grandmother could just stick her hand in the oven and judge whether the temperature was right for baking. Even in my early childhood my grandmother still had a wood-burning range, although in the middle 1940s they got a combination wood-burning/gas range. When I sold that house in the late ’80s that range was still in use. The man who bought the house was fascinated – said he really wanted that semi-antique!

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  15. Who would have ever imagined a butter post would be so powerful?
    Well done!

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  16. What a wonderful post about your life on that mountain. Interesting, how as a child and given the time and place, you appreciated the joys of the simple gift of butter … and that is a good thing!

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  17. In the final analysis, it’s the simple things in life that mean the most. You said it so well by not really saying it. πŸ™‚

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  18. That’s one of my favorite breakfasts, actually–fresh bread with lots of butter, and coffee. I love these two little glimpses into your life in that abandoned French village. But I’m so curious to know more. Γ‰cris, s’il te plais!

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    • Sorry I haven’t been prompt in replying to your comments Madame, I had no internet at home for a few days, can you imagine such a thing!!! I still had internet access on my phone, but I find that a bit slow and clunky for blog commenting. Anyway, yes, fresh and butter with coffee is a great breakfast isn’t it, especially in France!

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  19. Such simple beauty in these feelings and words, Vanessa. Great job capturing the fascination and eagerness with that stick of butter. It is the little things in life that make it so worthwhile, isn’t it?

    I hope you continue with more of these memoir pieces. They are so lovely. πŸ™‚

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  20. This is so lovely. It reminded me of the times I visited my Grandma in her house in a tiny village near the Pyrenees.

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  21. This is wonderful! Please write a book about your time in the French mountains!

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  22. All kids need to have an experience like this!

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