One of France’s most important agricultural regions, Brittany is no stranger to rain and sunshine, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. This is just as well, as the region accounts for almost a quarter of France’s total milk production. However, it is not just volume that is important but quality too. 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. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat because it manifests itself in the quality of their milk. Thus rich soil equals rich-tasting milk, butter and cheese.
While some cheese aficionados may have you believe that there are no Breton cheeses worthy of note, I rather disagree and think that there are a few locally produced cheeses that are well worth trying during any visit to Brittany.
Firstly, La Trappe de Timadeuc; a rather sweet, pressed cheese of the Port Salut type that has been produced by the Cistercian Trappist monks of Timadeuc Abbey for over 160 years. Campénéac, also known as L’Abbaye-de-Campénéac is another full fat pressed cheese but with a slightly sourer taste. Petit Breton is a cheese in the same “Abbey” tradition but delivers a more fruity taste. Close to raclette cheese, Merzer is a low-fat cheese with a creamy texture and a pleasing sweet taste. A local co-operative, Paysan Breton, produce a tasty range of soft cheeses under their Madame Loïk label and their fig with walnut offering or their cheese and sea salt flavours both taste wonderful on fresh bread.
Once made exclusively in monasteries and Abbeys across Northern France, Saint Paulin is nowadays produced on a more industrial scale in several sites across Brittany and is a cheese you will have no problems finding in a supermarket here. It is a decent tasty cheese with a slightly salty taste.
Cheeses made from goat’s milk are abundant hereabouts and locally-produced, great tasting cheeses are easy to find. Try Petit Billy, made from pasteurised goat’s milk, or the tasty Petit Billy Cendré which is covered in a sprinkling of black ash. Le Ménez Hom is another local cheese often coated with ash. It is made from raw goat’s milk and has a gentle, sour flavour. Another Breton cheese worth tasting is Kailh Breizh, a delicious pure goat’s cheese made with raw milk.
You will be sure to discover small artisanal producers selling their produce out of a van at most local markets here. Do stop and try something new such as Ty Pavez; a cheese made with seaweed and aged in sea water. Another local cheese worth sampling is Tomme Breton made with fenugreek or cider, both versions are tasty, sweet cheeses that lend themselves well to raclette.
Speaking of the joys of raclette, la Trappe de Timadeuc is wonderful as a raclette or simply melted into a fresh, homemade beef-burger. Other local cheeses that make excellent raclette include Timanoix (refined with nut liqueur) and Ty Guémené, a cheese flavoured with the delicious andouille or sausage of Guémené-sur-Scorff in central Brittany.
Any decent cheese deserves to be accompanied by a decent wine and while Brittany is justly famous for its cider and burgeoning range of artisan beers, wine is not an alcoholic beverage usually associated with the region but this is slowly and steadily starting to change.
Since 2016, changes to the law have allowed winegrowers in France to increase, albeit marginally, the size of their vineyards. This small liberalisation in vine planting rights has also encouraged some people to enter the business of cultivating grapes and producing wine commercially in Brittany.
Although the region has deep historical links to the production of and trade in wine, a string of political decisions stretching back almost 300 years effectively destroyed winegrowing in Brittany. Some modest vineyards, usually sited around abbeys and monasteries, particularly in the Rance Valley (an area now more known for its ciders), continued producing local wine into the 20th century. Indeed, the vineyard of Clos Garrot near Saint-Sulliac, cultivating white Chenin Blanc and red Rondo grapes, produced over 1,500 bottles of wine last year.
Some wine making was also known in southern Brittany and never quite died out; with local associations and private individuals continuing to cultivate the vine and produce Breton wine right up until the present day. The Association les Amis de la Vigne at Coteau-du-Braden near Quimper have been cultivating Chardonnay and Pinot Gris vines since 2006 and produced around 2,000 bottles last year.
Since 2016, several commercially oriented winegrowing projects have been initiated in this area, particularly around the towns of Quimper and Sarzeau. Vines are also being cultivated offshore, taking advantage of the beneficial micro-climates that exist on the Isle of Groix, Belle-Île and some of the islands in the Gulf of Morbihan.
Further west, at Treffiagat near Guilvinec, the Treixadura grape, a white Galician grape that is one of the key varieties found in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, has been cultivated since 2015. A vintage of about 1,200 bottles is anticipated this year from last year’s harvest; the wine is said to resemble a Viognier, a dry white wine with a fruity note, and could be the first modern Breton cru.
To the south east, lies the historical Ducal capital of Brittany – Nantes and the Pays Nantais. Although, administratively, it is no longer within the current political boundaries of Brittany, the region is home to the famous light, crisp Muscadet white wine. The Folle Blanche grape is also widely cultivated here, producing the popular Gros Plant du Pays Nantais, a dry, tangy white wine. Made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, more Muscadet is produced than any other Loire wine and with notable cultivation of Grolleau, Gamay and Malvoisie grape varieties, the region remains the largest European producer of dry white wine.
This part of historic Brittany boasts over 800 professional winegrowers and enjoys Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status; an official French standard designed to protect the designation of a product’s origin based on the concept of terroir and reserved for wine, cheese, butter and some other agricultural products.
For the future, the key issue is whether Brittany will ever produce, consistently, high quality wines. At first sight, Brittany does not appear ideal wine-growing country but scientists from Rennes University, who have studied the region’s soil and climate, believe that conditions in Brittany are conducive to the production of good quality grapes. The region has gained one degree Celsius in the past thirty years and is now enjoying the temperatures seen in Angers some fifty years ago. The temperate Breton weather, coupled with long periods of summer sunshine, is ideal for the effective ripening of grapes.
With some sixty vineyards now cultivating over 4,000 hectares of soil, more than thirty different grape varieties are currently established in Brittany. In the years to come, other good Breton wines will certainly appear and the trade body Comité des Vins Bretons are pushing hard for the creation of a “Vin Breton” label which would allow them to market their production under the designation Breton Wines. Try a glass, or two, of these Breton wines with some local cheese when you visit Brittany!