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The country known for creamy sauces and croissants is suffering a butter shortage that has not been seen in recent times. The French per capita consume more butter than any other country, some 18 pounds per person every year, so fears of running out, whether real or trumped up, have been causing meltdowns. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In the early morning hours inside this cozy Paris boulangerie, big batter mixing machines are kneading dough for the flaky breakfast pastry that's become a symbol of good French eating. Baker Frederic Pichard says it's no secret how to make a good croissant.
FREDERIC PICHARD: (Through interpreter) It takes savoir-faire and of course milk, sugar, eggs and flour. But the key ingredient is butter. More than a third of this croissant dough is butter.
BEARDSLEY: Pichard, who won an award for Paris' best croissant in 2017, has a contract with a farm that provides him fresh butter. Thank goodness, he says, because many Paris bakers are barely able to get the butter they need. Pichard predicts some may even turn to using margarine, a heresy for any French cook. Bernard Rouyer is head of the French national dairy board. He says the country's butter shortage is unnerving.
BERNARD ROUYER: You have to understand that butter holds a key role in French cuisine. And we eat butter with every meal. Being French, I cannot imagine eating radishes without butter. And we do consider the combination of baguette and butter as the perfect pairing.
BEARDSLEY: The current crisis is the result of increased worldwide demand for butter with producers struggling to keep up. Rouyer says in the West butter is no longer considered unhealthy, and in the East people are starting to eat it for the first time.
ROUYER: Some new countries are also importing butter. And that was not the case 10 years ago, countries like China, because butter doesn't belong to Chinese eating habits.
BEARDSLEY: Rouyer says people in China have developed a taste for rich French pastries, and butter consumption has increased tenfold. The shortage of beurre is whipping up fears and humor across France.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Videos like this one showing how to make butter are increasingly popular, and Internet searches on the topic are up 925 percent according to French media. One French dairy sent a tweet warning of beurre-out and listed its telephone number as the emergency hotline. Eighty-four-year-old Nicole Regai is staring at the half-empty butter shelves in a supermarket in downtown Paris.
NICOLE REGAI: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "There's nothing left," she says. "Good thing I've got some butter stocked away in my freezer at home." Regai says the last time she remembers such a butter shortage was during the Second World War.
But the French butter shortage is somewhat self-inflicted. In other countries, supermarkets responded to the changing market by raising prices. Because the price of butter in France is negotiated annually, French supermarkets refused and producers sold their stock abroad. But after emergency negotiations retailers have accepted an increase in prices, so consumers will find shelves stocked with butter just in time for Christmas. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.