In many ways, a trip to Brittany is a little bit like time travel: the region is so rich in history, and the old traditions so present on a daily basis that many visitors feel that Brittany is more "foreign", more remote than other areas of France. Of course, it is more remote in geographic terms: Brittany is as far West as you can go in France. It juts out to the Atlantic, as if trying to strike for independence. . Finistère, the westernmost départment, literally means "the end of the earth". But most of all, it is a region of ancient ritual and legend. Near Carnac, massive stones called menhirs stand in lines and in circles, very much similar to Stonehenge. They were erected by the tribes who lived there before the Gauls. Then, the Romans took over the region (some say that Astérix and his village of "gaulois irréductibles" were able to resist the Roman invasion, but his celebrated adventures might just be a cartoonist's creation...). Then came the Celts, who were called Bretons because they had come from nearby Britain following the Anglo-Saxon invasions. In fact, Brittany was a Celtic duchy for over a thousand years before being annexed by France in 1532. The breton language, which is similar to Welsh, is still very much alive today; so are the Christian customs and the traditional dress. Shrines and crosses seem to mark every crossroads of the countryside. The coiffes, elaborate lace headdress worn by older women, vary from region to region and can be admired during the pardon, a ceremonial procession held when a village celebrates its patron saint. In a land marked by change and inhabited by a variety of people throughout the ages, only one thing has been revered by all: the sea.
A fish and shellfish paradise. One is never far from the sea in Brittany: with the English Channel to the North and the Atlantic to the South, the coast is often pounded by hard breakers, but it also houses many natural harbors, which established fishing as the premier activity in Brittany. For centuries, Breton fishermen have brought in fish from nearby waters and ventured as far away as Greenland when fishing for cod. In general, cooks in Brittany do not complicate their fish with sauces: a simple beurre blanc will often accompany a fish that was poached in an aromatic court bouillon (fish stock). More elaborate sauces include sauce Saint-Malo which includes shallots, white wine and mustard, or à la Cancalaise, which contains oysters, shrimp and crème fraîche. Fish also find its way into many breton soups. The best shellfish can be found right along the Brittany coast: sweet, briny Belon oysters; meaty mussels served raw, cooked in white wine, or in soupe aux moules; coquilles Saint-Jacques from Saint-Brieuc, perhaps the best scallops in France; clams (praires and palourdes) and periwinkles (bigorneaux) are also noteworthy. Crustacean lovers will not be disappointed either: lobster (large homards or the smaller, clawless langoustes), shrimp, crayfish-like langoustines, many varieties of crabs (including the big, rounded tourteaux and the long-legged araignées de mer) are prominently featured at the local markets and on restaurant menus. Any decent restaurant will offer a plateau de fruits de mer that enables the guest to sample numerous "fruits of the sea" and often leads to heated discussions about homard "à l'Armoricaine" or "à l'Américaine". Since this issue is in no danger of being settled anytime soon, just nod and enjoy this wonderful lobster-stew-in-tomato-and-shallot-sauce...
Meanwhile, back at the farm... Although the bounties of its seas are plentiful, Brittany also takes pride in many "land-based" products. The first one is a by-product of the sea but it is harvested on land: sea salt. During the Middle Ages, salt was a very valuable commodity since it was vital for preserving food as well as seasoning it. Brittany provided most of Europe's salt. La gabelle, a tax imposed on salt in the 16th century led to a decline in trade. Nowadays, about 25,000 tons of salt are harvested each year in salt beds along the Guérande Peninsula. Seawater is trapped in shallow beds called oeillets and allowed to evaporate. The salt is gathered during the evenings from late June to early September and raked into huge mounds. Sel de Guérande is coarse and gray; highly valued for its flavor, it is particularly prized by bakers and chefs. Salt also finds its way in butter and lamb! Indeed, Bretons like their butter salted, unlike the vast majority of French people; and the meat of the lambs (agneaux de pré-salé) is delicately flavored with salt from the marshes where they graze. Pork and poultry is also widely available but Brittany is perhaps best known for some of its produce: Prince de Bretagne cauliflower and Gros Camus artichokes are the pride of the area. Many other green vegetables also grow very well in the mild climate of Brittany.
And for dessert? Here is some food for thought, literally: there is no breton word for cheese! Of course, Normandy is right next door with its array of Camembert, Pont l'Evèque and Livarot... Two fruits play a special part in Brittany cuisine: the famous strawberries from Plougastel, over twenty different varieties, and apples from the Saint-Malo area. Apples are used to make desserts and to make cider, the drink of the region. Granted, Muscadet wine goes better with oysters but hard cider is the perfect accompaniment for crèpes, many fish dishes and pastries. The traditional pastries include several versions of gâteau breton, which in its simplest form really is a pound cake, or what the French call a quatre-quarts because it is made with four equal parts of flour, butter, sugar and eggs. The Kouign-amann is made with yeasted dough which is spread with butter and sugar, sometimes ground almonds and angelica, and folded over itself. The sablés bretons are wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies. The far that tourists are most likely to try is the Far Breton, a rich prune flan bake all over Brittany. But the traditional peasant fars are simple savory batters, made from flour, eggs and water, and cooked in a pot-au-feu for several hours until it resembles crumbly dumpling.
Crèpes or galettes? And then, there are crèpes. Or are they really called galettes? Actually, there are both: the crèpes are made with wheat flour, are thin and served as dessert, filled with jam, apple compote, honey, chocolate sauce... The galettes are made with buckwheat flour, are thicker and used to hold savory fillings such as ham, egg, gruyère cheese, mushrooms, seafood mixtures... Both styles are very easy to prepare. To make the batter for 16-18 Galettes de Sarrasin, combine 2 cups of buckwheat flour, 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 3 eggs, 2 cups of milk, 1 1/2 tablespoons of Guérande sea salt, and whisk until the batter is very smooth. Add 3 cups of water, 1/2 cup at a time, blending well after each addition. Then add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and blend well. A non-stick frying pan, lightly brushed with butter between each galette, and you are ready for a crèpe party! Finding breton cider in the US will be more of a challenge...
If Brittany is not on your itinerary during your next trip to France, you may still be able to sample authentic crèpes and galettes while you are in Paris. There are dozens of excellent crèperies in the capital, but some of the best ones can be found in the Montparnasse district: many breton peasants ended up settling around Gare Montparnasse, the train station they arrived at after leaving Brittany, and opened small restaurants. Most of the crèperies are quaint; patrons sit on benches and engage in lively conversations while drinking a bolée of cider; oftentimes, crèpes are prepared in an open kitchen and you can observe an efficient grand-mère bretonne spread the batter on her griddles with a little rubber scraper shaped like a squeegee. While I was a student in Paris fifteen years ago, there was this crèperie I used to visit regularly. I looked for it during my last trip home: it is still there. So is the grandmother...
Our recipes from Brittany:
Grilled Prawns with Sea Salt-Gambas grillées au Sel de Guérande
Prawns and Scallops in Sea Salt-Coquilles St Jacques et Bouquets au Gros Sel
Scallops in Saffron Sauce-Effeuillé de St Jacques et Petits Légumes au Safran
Duck Breast in Salt Crust-Duo de Magrets en Croûte de Sel
Leg of Lamb à la Bretonne-Gigot à la Bretonne