Radis beurre is one of those iconic French bistro dishes, sort of like sole meuniere, that is so simple and so inexplicably delicious. Radis beurre, radishes and butter, sometimes on toast and always with a sprinkling of salt, might just be my new favorite summer snack. Just about every NYC greenmarket that I’ve been to in the past month has at least one stand piled high with spicy, sweet, crispy, mustardy radishes—cherry belle, diakon, French breakfast, plum purple—all kinds.
For my radis beurre, I kept it simple. Slices of untoasted baguette smeared with butter, topped with thinly sliced radishes and Hong Vit radish greens (which I found at the Union Square market and couldn’t resist buying). Finish with a pinch or two of salt.
Rather that start a dissertation on the varieties of radishes (for those of you who don’t know, there are more than 250 varieties in colors ranging from white to pink to purple to red to black) I thought that it might be more interesting to take a quick look into the history of butter. After all, you can’t make radis beurre without a generous slathering of the stuff.
If you have never read about the history of butter, I promise you it’s time to start. That little yellow stick in your fridge has a story that dates back more than 3,000 years.
The word butter actually comes from the Greek bou-tryon, which means “cow’s cheese,” though considering that historically, the Greeks have preferred olive oil, the word was probably borrowed from the language of the Scythians, who lived in modern-day Ukraine. While many of the southern European cultures didn’t care for butter (they associated it with the spread of leprosy in the north), it was exceedingly popular among the Arabs and Syrians, who churned it by pouring milk into goat skins and swinging them rapidly on tent poles. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to visualize this.
Butter wasn’t just for eating, either. In India, during the first century, it was fed to injured elephants or applied topically to their wounds, while the Romans used it to relieve growing pains, burns, and babies rashes. This earned butter the name “cow-smear” in Viking languages.
Sweet, creamy, and delicious by itself, if you’re feeling adventurous spice up your butter with a mixture of minced herbs or even mashed anchovies for a nice salty kick. Or deep-fry it, Paula Deen Style.