My father has always been into butter, something that I picked up from him. For Vietnamese people of Bo Gia’s generation, the benchmark brand of butter came in a stout red can with gold lettering. Buerre Bretel (bơ Bretel, “buh Bruh-tell”) was highly prized for its super rich, umami-laden flavor. In a tropical country where water buffaloes far outnumbered dairy cows, the imported French butter was considered an expensive, luxury food.
If you could afford the dense, egg yolk yellow salted spread, you were living large. For villagers who may not have ever tasted the butter, the empty cans were recycled for measuring even portions of rice, according to historian Erica Peters in Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam.
After we resettled in California, my dad tried different kinds of American butter but when he and my mom could get a rare can of Bretel butter at a Vietnamese market, it was an extra treat. We’d smear it on baguette to eat as is or add pate or slices of Vietnamese silky sausage (gio lua) and lots of black pepper. We'd mix a pat into hot rice or egg noodles and let it melt to perfume and flavor everything. (Sometimes I’d sprinkle on some Maggi Seasoning sauce too). The butter expressed high-end, high-class eating.
Or so I thought. When my husband and I first started dating, I let him try a Bretel knockoff called Frentel (it was all I found at a Viet market at the time, and cost roughly $3.50 for a 250g can). He thought it tasted rancid and mistrusted the yellow color.
You’ve got to be kidding, he said. The French fooled you with this dreck. They had no other options for butter that could travel well. Colonialism was not a good thing.
He was right about the colonialism and I didn’t buy another can of French butter until this year. Working on the banh mi book got me thinking about revisiting certain French imported goods. At a book event and online, a couple of Viet-Americans reminded me of their family penchant for the beurre from France. Does canned butter taste as good to me now as it did in the 1970s?
I found the butter at Green Farm Market, a Viet grocer in Fountain Valley (Little Saigon in Orange County, CA). Frentel cost about $6 and Bretel was about $8. I also purchased imported canned pate since it was displayed alongside the butter.
At home, I looked up the history of Bretel and found out that Eugène Auguste Emile Bretel (1842-1933) was a famous butter producer in Normandy, France – a place renowned for its dairy products. He and his brother operated Maison Bretel Frères to produce butter in their northwestern city of Port-bail and elsewhere in the region; Isigny is an area particularly well known for its dairy products, hence the wording below. Their company changed hands several times over the years.
Nowadays, according to one American importer, Bretel and Beurdell are made by the same manufacturer in France. Out of curiosity, I Googlemapped the address on the Bretel can (30 Rue De La Montagne Ste Genevieve 75005 Paris) and saw Sushirama restaurant. They may just be the distributor . . .
I tried the two kinds of butter on baguette. The Frentel was crazy yellow and not particularly nuanced or super buttery as I expected; it was actually weird and waxy tasting, reminding me of latex paint.
The Bretel was lighter in color and texturally softer than I remembered but delicious tasting. Why the different taste in French butter? Perhaps because French butter often has slightly less water than its American kin and is produced from cultured cream. The breed of cows and what the cows feed on (grasses vs. grain, for example) impacts the cream used in production. Some say the sea salt used to flavor the butter effects the overall flavor as well.
Then I made this old-school banh mi with one of my homemade rolls:
It’s a simple banh mi, probably the first that ever made for myself as a kid. My mom would set out bread, butter, pate, and pepper, and let me go to town; I added cilantro for a pop of flavor. She made her own liver pate but my dad would also buy various kinds of canned French pate from the Akron (a precursor to Cost Plus World Market).
The canned butter-and-pate banh mi was more nostalgic than great tasting. The pate was not great canned pate, not the kind that my friends Maki and Christophe bring back from France. The butter, though, was good. My husband deemed the Bretel to be alright, if not quite good.
I decided to make banh mi – a dac biet and a roast chicken, subbing the butter for mayonnaise and going light on the vegetables and sprinkling in lots of black pepper instead of chiles. Splendid. A few banh mi makers use butter or margarine instead of mayonnaise so keep that in your back pocket as you experiment.
Should you hunt down canned butters? They are sold at hardcore Vietnamese markets and delis/bakeries so you’ll have to venture into a Viet ‘hood for them. They are easy to spot because of the unusual packaging. Bretel and Buerdell are sold on Amazon but you have to invest in quite a few, which could make you very popular with your friends this holiday season. Gift them a bottle of Maggi Seasoning sauce and can of French butter.
Or, go out and source really good butter. I gravitate toward butter made from grass-fed cows and right now, am enjoying Somerdale English butter. Trader Joe’s organic butter is nice for cooking. I bet butter from Isigny, France, is quite good too and comes close to Bretel butter. If there’s a local raw milk source near you, they may produce delicious butter. A little good butter goes a long way because there’s a big flavor payoff. It’s a nice splurge.
I've seen Dutch canned butter in the Indonesian section at Asian markets, and read about Australian Red Feather canned butter. Anyone tried those or others? Or, if you have experience with Bretel, Buerdell or Frentel, please share!