The people in the afternoon crowd at the Grand Central Market this week probably wondered who was attracting such an audience in front of the DTLA Cheese stall.
But it was no mystery to anyone who has sampled the unbelievably tasty Beurre de Baratte — the French butter that is a featured ingredient on high-end menus at restaurants including Providence, Petit Trois and Republique.
The guy in the white jacket at the center of the throng of chefs and food writers was Rodolphe Le Meunier, whose name is on every gold-foiled package. And in cheese circles, he's a rock star.
The 39-year-old from the Loire Valley is the third generation of his family to be in the business. In 2007, he was named both the best cheesemonger in France and the world's best cheesemonger by different organizations. Le Meunier has also won the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the Olympics of French craftsmen, held every four years.
In a way, it's funny that the thing he's best known for in Southern California is his butter. At least until you taste it.
Beurre de Baratte, which usually sells for around $12 for a little more than a half-pound, makes every other butter you taste seem insipid.
It's expensive, certainly (most restaurants serve it only with a surcharge). But as indulgences go, it's so good that it seems a relative bargain.
Le Meunier says the butter is made to his specifications in small lots by a producer in Normandy. The cream is inoculated with bacteria and fermented for a couple of hours — like yogurt. Then it's churned in an old-fashioned beater, or baratte.
When it just begins to come together in curds, it's transferred to wooden molds and spread by hand to avoid breaking up any of the delicate fat globules.
Beurre de Baratte comes salted (aggressively, with fleur de sel) and sweet (unsalted). Both are a deep golden color and incredibly richly flavored, almost more like cheese than regular butter.
The unsalted is best for cooking, but it needs to be used carefully because of its high moisture content (open a package and you'll probably see a little water weeping from the pat). Le Meunier says it's great for baking cakes, not so much for crisp crusts.
One of his favorite treats is to spread it on hot toast and sprinkle it with chocolate powder. If the thought of that doesn't get you salivating, you haven't tasted great butter.
"And if you ever make beurre blanc with it and serve that on a nice piece of fish, oooooh," he says, shaking his hand in the universal gesture for sublimity.
Le Meunier comes from a cheese-making family in La Croix-en-Touraine, a town of about 2,000 people. His grandmother made goat cheese; his father expanded the business to the aging and finishing of goat cheeses (affineur is a respected specialty in France, though it's largely unknown here).
His goals were similarly modest, he says, until he helped with a wedding in the Loire that was attended by New York chef David Bouley and Danny Wegman, of the East Coast grocery chain. When he saw how much cheese they bought to take back to the U.S., Le Meunier says he decided there might be a market.
Now he has seven caves for aging cheese, each with its own specific humidity and temperature.
"I started working with cheese when I was 8 years old and I wanted some money, so my father said he'd pay me 10 euros to come to work with him," Le Meunier says. "This has been my dream since I was young.
"But now even though I'm still working with cheeses, I'm working less with my hands and more with my mind."
Rodolphe Le Meunier's Beurre de Baratte can be found at: Cheese Cave, 325 Yale Ave., Claremont, (909) 625-7560, www.claremontcheese.com; DTLA Cheese, 317 S. Broadway, (213) 290-3060, www.dtlacheese.com; Nicole's Market & Cafe, 921 Meridian Ave., South Pasadena, (626) 403-5751, www.nicolesgourmetfoods.com; Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market, 6333 W. 3rd Street, Los Angeles, (323) 939-7792, www.mrmarcel.com; Canyon Gourmet, 120 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 455-4200, canyongourmet.com; and online at www.gourmetfoodworld.com.