This has been an interesting question to research. For one thing, I
had no idea there were so many French butter dishes on sale!
After looking into this I am confident that these butter dishes do
have French origins but they are not "centuries old" as so many
advertisers believe. There is reasonable evidence that they are a
nineteenth century idea, which the French associate particularly with
Brittany and Normandy, both major butter-producing areas. (Brittany
used to be the region of France associated with salted butter in
When did they arrive in the US? Not long ago, I think. Most references
to them in English are very recent and there are many explanations,
assuming Americans will not be familiar with them. Message board
discussions also imply they are a novelty.
Although preserving butter in salted water goes back at least to the
Middle Ages, it seems that the special serving pot with butter held in
a lid, sealed by water below, is relatively modern:
"By the turn of the nineteenth century, a butter dish was designed
which is still in use today. It is a crockery jar with a cover. You
put salt water in the jar. The cover is recessed, and there is where
the butter goes. When the butter is not being used, you flip the
cover, so the butter is dipped in the salt water."
Two more reasons to believe the origin was 19th century rather than
I've searched French antiques and collectibles sites and not found
this type of beurrier dated before about 1900. Here's a Breton one
with the early 1900s as the suggested date:
This design is said to have originated in 1850:
The butter dishes work by:
1 Keeping air away from the butter. This is important to stop the
butter from going rancid. Some of the best designs have holes in the
under-parts of the lid to ensure the last bubbles of air can leave and
be replaced by water or brine.
2 Using cool water to keep the butter at a good temperature, fresh
3 Adding salt to the water can help preserve the butter.
Recommendations on changing the water vary from every day to every
An explanation of how to make a Norman butter pot - note the
"This pot is made in two parts:
-The body of the bowl which contains salt water for the preserving of
-The lid which contains the butter, it is preserved in water and kept
away from air"
More about how they're made and how they work:
There's another good piece about how them here:
But, I want to disagree with a couple of points in it. The writer
suggests the name "cloche" or butter bell for these butter dishes, but
this term is often applied to a flat butter dish with a bell shaped
cover (the cloche).
Still, there is indeed a problem about naming the item. I found a huge
range of names for it, including:
French butter dish, bell, crock, keeper or pot.
Beurrier Breton, beurrier Normand, pot à beurre Breton or beurrier à
I also don't think there's any particular reason to believe the dishes
originated in Vallauris, as the writer tentatively suggests. Vallauris
is nowhere near Normandy or Brittany. However, it is an important
pottery area and I did find a striking mid-20c butter dish made there:
French butter pots of this kind often come in painted "folk art"
designs, especially Breton designs:
(Cornouaille and Celtique are both word which Bretons in France would
associate with their Celtic heritage.)
Another "beurrier Breton":
In case you're wondering why Red Riding Hood appears on a Breton
butter dish page, the traditional French version of this story has her
taking a galette (cake) and a "pot de beurre" (pot of butter) to her
grandmother. Unfortunately, there's no proof that this was the special
water-containing kind of butter pot!
More on traditional storage methods using salt water:
"During the Middle Ages butter was wrapped in sorrel leaves and
immersed in earthenware pots filled with salt water. The reason was to
keep the butter fresh tasting and the sorrel would impart its sour
lemony flavour to the overall taste."
A description of traditional methods of wrapping butter in leaves,
covering in salted water, and storing in stoneware pots:
"TO KEEP BUTTER SWEET A YEAR:
TAKE CARE THAT THE BUTTER IS MADE IN THE BEST MANNER, AND THE
BUTTER-MILK ENTIRELY WORKED OUT OF IT. LAY IT IN A WHITE-OAK FIRKIN (
A small wooden barrel or keg). MAKE A STRONG BRINE OF SALT AND WATER,
AND PUT IT INTO ANOTHER AND LARGER FIRKIN, AND SET THE ONE CONTAINING
THE BUTTER INTO THE ONE IN WHICH THE BRINE IS. LET THE BRINE COME UP
VERY NEAR TO THE TOP OF THE BUTTER FIRKIN. LAY ON THE TOP OF THE
BUTTER A WHITE BAG WITH FINE SALT IN IT, COVER IT CLOSE, AND THEN PUT
ON THE COVER OF THE OUTSIDE FIRKIN."
Thanks for asking this interesting question!
If you have any queries about what I've written, please don't hesitate
to ask for clarification. I'm afraid I won't be at my desk from
Wednesday to Saturday. I do hope this won't cause you any
Regards - Leli
searches using combinations of these terms:
French butter dish, bell, crock, keeper, pot
Beurrier Breton, beurrier Normand, beurrier à l'eau, pot à beurre, pot
19c 19ème xixème siècle