In the early eighties while others were discovering Diet Coke, I was in my French bubble discovering crème fraîche.
At age 19 as a student abroad in Paris, I rented a room chez Mme de Vulpian in her apartment in the 7tharrondissement.
While she didn’t cook for me, I knew she was skilled as wonderful smells wafted regularly from her basement galley kitchen.
She was a little tough on the young American for being culturally numb, not to mention the cacophonous excuse for French that tumbled clumsily out of my mouth.
By the end of my stay I had grown on her and she invited me to her “country home” north of Paris. My French had not improved much so we both labored through the most basic conversations.
Her weekend meals were simple and always delicious. Bad French notwithstanding, I strategically made myself understood in praising her food. She glowed and even invited me to give her a hand.
For a quick Sunday mid-day meal she cooked an entrecote of beef soaked with a crème fraîche reduction sauce. It happened so fast, I could have missed it even watching her. She seared the meat in butter in a skillet just enough to maintain a nice pink interior. Upon removing the meat from the skillet she added some shallots to the pan, a few mushrooms and a splash of wine to scrape up the meat juices. Out of nowhere came a heaping tablespoon (or two) of crème fraîche. The skillet transformed into a delicious pool of goodness to pour over the meat. A few sprigs of parsley for color, salt and pepper to taste and over the meat it went. It kept the meat warm, moist and tasty. Not too rich and oh so flavorful. I was hooked.
A second crème fraîche encounter happened on the farm in Brittany, France where I spent the better part of the summer milking and tending to goats, cows, and cheese. We turned the milk into traditional fresh and aged goat cheeses. The Jersey cows’ milk was separated into skim milk and cream. In France, traditional crème fraîche is fresh cream from the cow. The cream is liquid, warm, raw and populated with the natural lactic bacteria found in milk. Straight from the farm cream separator into small containers, the raw cream was refrigerated for several days waiting to be sold at the local farmers’ markets along the coast.
At the hardscrabble Breton farm called Manez Cure, the lifestyle was simple at best but meals were rich in good cheese, butter, and crème fraîche. A daily favorite was a bowl of fromage blanc, the fresh lactic drained cheese curd made from the skim milk. At the risk of being too healthy we dolloped crème fraîche and sugar on top. It was our abundant dessert of choice. On special occasions, we made profiteroles. Scarce Ice cream and freezer space prompted improvisation by stuffing the pate a choux with crème fraîche and drizzling with chocolate sauce. More dollops of Crème fraîche made their way into skillets of sautéed green beans and garlic glazing the vegetables with the nuttiest of cream.
Leaving France and what had become my daily kitchen staples of cultured butter and cultured cream behind left an important culinary void. I had to have my favorite dairy delights and of course Americans would learn to love them too. When Bob Reese and I started Vermont Creamery (then Vermont Butter & Cheese Company) crème fraîche was immediately in the offering. Fortunately we were young and naïve enough to think that if we made something tasty it would sell.
Americans didn’t know about crème fraîche and they certainly weren’t going to ask about something they could not pronounce. As containers of crème fraîche piled in our cooler and cash drained from the bank account we desperately sought out the people who cared: French chefs. Hopeful tingling of pride welled up in me when Bob dispatched from New York City and the kitchen at Lutece that chef Andre Solter proclaimed, “Zee crème is beeeuteeful”. And so, French chef by French chef we sold crème fraîche knowing that someday American home cooks would discover this too.
What could be so special about cultured cream? We started making it in our first milk house creamery. I would fetch ten gallon cans of high butterfat cream from the local dairy each Monday. I wrestled the filled cans from under the separator at the dairy onto my pickup truck. Imagine the gaze on the face of the guy working on the milk carton filler line who dared show enough interest to ask a stray female in the plant what she was doing? My response was, “I am making crème fraîche! It’s the best”. By law we were obligated to pasteurize the raw cream. In order to get the nutty flavor and thick texture we added a selection of bacteria called starter culture to the cream. We heated the cream in a 50 gallon vat pasteurizer to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes. Our milk house had only enough spring water to cool the cream to the just right temperature to add the culture. We then decanted the cultured cream back into the cans and stored it overnight. The following day we poured the cream back into the vat and tempered to a temperature at which we could fill our containers. Once the containers were cool it was miraculously good with the desired thick texture. Part of “terroir” is making do with what you’ve got and in those days we didn’t have a lot of options in our techniques. We were lucky enough to make it pleasing to the chefs. When we got really big and were packaging more than twenty gallons per week we were so bold to spring for printed containers. Our graphic artist had chosen a trendy antique rose color for the design. We turned our heads just long enough to agree that whatever he put in front of us was great and went back to filling containers. The containers came back from the printer as hot pink. At the risk of being mistaken for a Mary Kay cosmetic franchise, we had no choice but to use the hot pink containers. We were out of cash. Little did we know that the pink container would become an important brand promise over the years. At one point we changed the container and the retailers were outraged. The customers couldn’t find the cups on the shelves. I recall seeing the cup on the shelf through the window in Citarella from across the street in Manhattan. I guess they had a point. Today we still follow that same basic recipe for crème fraîche. The ten gallon cans are on the shelf and I don’t make that weekly trip to the dairy. Fortunately our state of the art creamery has a little more hot and cold water and we are blessed with a staff with the savoir faire to get it right all of the time. Like the cover of an Apple iPhone, the crème fraîche cups are as bright pink as ever.