One of the main events in every Breton town is the regular open-air street market which is as much a social event as a shopping experience. Once or sometimes twice a week, the town centre is taken over with every conceivable type of stall – from fresh fruit and vegetables, pâté and cheeses being sold directly by the producer, to beds being sold out of a van or live chickens in cardboard boxes. If you prefer your chickens a little more prepared, there are usually stall-holders selling spit-roasted birds, pork and potatoes.
No market worthy of the name will fail to feature one or two stalls selling artisanal bread, each offering an abundance of fresh loaves and you will find such stalls even in small towns with two or three independent boulangeries of their own.
While the number of traditional boulangeries in Brittany, as in the rest of France, has declined markedly over the last decade, thanks, in part, to the relentless march of the national and international supermarket chains; you can still find a boulangerie in most villages. The good ones are usually noticeably busy and fairly easy to spot; in rural villages you’ll notice cars constantly stopping nearby and in towns and cities, there will be queues, sometimes quite long ones.
There are other pointers to look-out for when searching for the best traditional baguettes, rye breads and pastries in Brittany. The best bakers who handle what the French call “the art of bread” will display a sign identifying themselves as an Artisan Boulanger (literally Craftsman Baker). This is a tightly controlled designation with heavy sanctions under French law for those who falsely claim craftsman status.
To be called a boulangerie, a bakery must actually bake the bread on the premises; setting it apart from a Depot de Pain, a shop that simply sells bread that was baked elsewhere. You may find some Depot de Pain have close ties to well-known busy boulangeries but generally most produce bread from frozen dough or by part-baking industrially made frozen loaves.
Once inside a popular boulangerie, your senses are immediately assaulted with the scent of fresh, crunchy baguettes and often a staggering variety of other freshly baked breads, rich viennoiseries and tempting pastries. It can sometimes feel quite overwhelming deciding what to buy with a lot of impatient customers waiting in line behind you. So, here are a few quick pointers on just some of the most popular types of bread you’ll find in Brittany’s boulangeries.
Staple of most French breakfasts, the baguette classique or baguette ordinaire is a popular cheap and cheerful choice here. It is the bread that most people nowadays identify with France and you will see these long loaves stacked horizontally on shelves or displayed vertically in large open drums. The classic baguette can contain additives such as ascorbic acid and gluten; preservatives and colouring agents are also permissible in its manufacture.
These items are all prohibited in the baguette de tradition. The baguette tradition or pain traditional Français appeared after the Firs World War and its production must adhere to some strict guidelines, namely: no deep-freezing treatment during preparation; no additives which would facilitate or shorten one or more stages of its creation; only contain water, wheat flour, yeast or natural leavening agent and salt.
This baguette costs more than the classique but you’ll notice the difference in the taste and texture of the bread which takes around five hours to make. Be aware that some boulangeries name their baguette tradition after their baker or locality. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Similarly, it is quite acceptable to ask for a crisp, well-done crust (bien cuite) or a soft (pas trop cuite) one. Both the classic and traditional baguettes are sometimes labelled and sold as a Pain Déjeunette; it’s about half the size of a baguette and often sold with fillings such as cheese and ham.
You’ll also find Pain Flûte which is essentially a larger version of a baguette and almost twice as weighty. At the other end of the scale is the Ficelle, a long thin loaf that is shorter than a baguette and half the weight. All these breads are best enjoyed on the day of purchase as their quality deteriorates quite quickly.
Up until the end of the First World War, the Boule de Pain or Pain Boule was the bread most closely associated with France in the public consciousness. A rustic, round shaped loaf that can be made of any type of flour, its ball shape helps retain moisture making it slow to dry out and thus stay fresher longer than elongated breads such as baguettes.
A loaf with a similar shelf-life is the Pain de Campagne sometimes called Pain Paysan. This bread is sold in a great variety of shapes and sizes; it’s a hearty loaf with a thick crust and an airy texture usually made with white or whole wheat flour or a mixture of the two. Some boulangeries add sourdough to their recipe but you will usually see sourdough bread labelled as Pain au Levain. Another type of bread that is widely seen in various shapes and sizes is the Pain Complet; a hearty and tasty whole wheat bread.
There are two other common signs that you will see on the bread shelves of the boulangeries here; firstly, Pain aux Céréales or Pain Campagrain which are fairly generic names covering a broad range of high fibre multi-grain loaves. The mix of ingredients varies according to the whims of the baker but you can usually expect between two to five grains and some seeds, most commonly the grains are wheat, malted wheat, rye, barley and oats with a mixture of sesame, sunflower, brown flax and yellow flax seeds.
A large number of boulangeries also offer Pains Spéciaux, specially created breads made with walnuts, garlic, olives or even sausage. In parts of north west Brittany, you can find Pain de Roscoff, a bread made with the famous pink Roscoff onions and smoked sausage; this delivers an intense flavour which is heightened by the red wine used to marinate the onions and make the dough. Another speciality bread of the region is often referred to as Pain Breton, made with sel-gris (unrefined local sea salt) and sarrasin (buckwheat flour); a tasty bread which needs only Breton butter for augmentation.
You will not have to spend much time in Brittany before you appreciate how seriously they take their butter here and there are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, Brittany is no stranger to rain, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. The French have a word – terroir – which means something akin to the history of the soil and is a term often heard when discussing wine but this one word sums up a concept that is central to French food and wine. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat as it manifests itself through their milk – rich soil equals rich-tasting dairy butter.
It is not just the terroir that makes Breton butter so special; it also has a high fat content. Butter is mainly milk, particularly cream and Brittany is a big dairy producer. It needs to be, as it takes over 10 litres (2.6 gallons) of cow’s milk to make 450 grams (almost a pound) of butter. While most countries use 80 per cent butterfat in their butter, the French use at least 82 per cent and while this difference may not seem great it does have a noticeable impact on texture and taste. Additionally, in the past, the region was exempt from the Salt Tax and this fostered a culture where foodstuffs were heavily salted to aid the preservation of foodstuffs.
Today, Brittany’s butter is best when it is heavily salted with large flecks of coarse grains of sea salt that crunch when you bite into them but there are versions that do not contain as much salt and even those than omit it entirely. So, there is something to suit all tastes and all are simply delicious when spread on a baguette still warm from the boulangerie.
The old walled city of Saint-Malo is home to the Museum of Butter but the real attraction here is the attached Creamery and Cheesemonger, La Maison du Beurre, owned by Jean-Yves Bordier, one of France’s most renowned artisanal butter makers.
If you do find yourself in Saint-Malo, it is worth visiting just to try some of his flavoured butters such as smoked salt or seaweed or even garlic and chili. There are also butters flavoured with vanilla and raspberries and even butter with chocolate and shards of cocoa beans but the one to take home is surely Beurre de Baratte a l’Oignon de Roscoff – hand-made butter infused with the, justly renowned, tasty pink onions from Roscoff. A wonderful combination delivering great texture and taste especially if spread generously on a slice of fresh bread!