Brittany is quite unlike other parts of France, its distinctiveness extends beyond the cultural and linguistic and manifests itself strongly in its culinary traditions. So, what are the flavours that a visitor really should sample in order to enjoy a true taste of Brittany?
With almost 1,800 miles (2,860km) of stunning coastline, it is not surprising that seafood should feature on any list of Breton culinary specialities and there are a few to look out for when you are here. Although, if truth be told, you will not have to look very hard!
The local oysters are world renowned and deservedly so; they are fleshy, delicious and deliver a pleasant subtle aftertaste. While oysters are widely farmed around the coast, the three best sites are widely regarded to be around Cancale near St-Malo on the Côte d’Émeraude in north-east Brittany, Prat-Ar-Coum near Lannilis on the Côte des Légendes in the north-west and Riec-sur-Bélon near Quimperlé on the Côte de Cornouaille in the south. Native flat oysters (huîtres plates) are a speciality of the two latter locations where many oyster farms also benefit from a combination of fresh and saltwater, giving them an enjoyable flavour with a light nutty taste. They can be eaten all year round but are probably at their best between September and June. Enjoy them with bread and a splash of lemon or red wine vinegar.
Mussels are very popular here and you will be sure to see them on the menus of bars and restaurants throughout Brittany. The two main types cultivated locally are the Edulis and Gallo mussels; the latter having a much larger shell containing a larger sized mussel with flesh that varies in colour from yellow to deep orange as opposed to the rich orange typically found with an Edulis. Some local mussels are farmed in the open sea in the Bay of Lannion, reared on a network of submerged ropes suspended from longlines several metres underwater. Growing while constantly submerged and feeding in the open sea gives their flesh a distinct iodised flavour. However, the majority of Breton mussels are bred on ropes entwined around large wooden stakes, called bouchots, driven into the foreshore, most significantly in large sites around the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel and the Bay of Saint-Brieuc on the north coast and the Vilaine estuary on the south coast. Feeding and growing with the tides gives these bouchot mussels a dense mellow flesh, rich in flavour.
You can expect to find fresh mussels between April and the end of October and while you will no doubt see them listed as a starter, you’ll see them most often on menus here as a main dish listed as moules marinière or simply moules frites; essentially, mussels steamed and served in a little broth made from shallots, herbs, butter and Breton Muscadet wine. More often than not, they will be delivered hot to your table in a large pot with a plate of fried chipped potato and an extra pot for the empty shells.
You’ll also find cooking à la marinière applied to another local delicacy, langoustines (sometimes also known as Norway Lobster or Scampi). The ports of Brittany are some of the biggest landers of langoustines in Europe and there is plenty of opportunity to see them unload the catches in the ports of Penmarc’h, Le Guilvinec, Lesconil and Loctudy on the south coast. The old maxim that fresh is best applies to all seafood, particularly langoustines and you will find lots of stalls selling offerings from the day’s catch if you fancy cooking some yourself. They are easy to prepare and can be pan-fried, poached, grilled or roasted; provided they are not overcooked, they deliver a delicate but tasty flavour of the sea.
Langoustines are fished all year round but they are mostly caught between April and October which, by happy coincidence, dovetails nicely with the scallop season here that runs from October to April. The particular scallop fished for off the Breton coast is the king scallop, known here as Coquilles Saint-Jacques. The largest reserves in France are today found in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc with the main catches brought ashore at the ports of Erquy, Saint-Quay-Portrieux and Loguivy and quickly auctioned. These auctions handle some 6000 tonnes of scallops a year and are open to the public although only as spectators. If you want to buy scallops direct from the boats you will need to head a little further west to Plougasnou on the neighbouring Bay of Morlaix, an area that produces less than 300 tonnes of king scallops a year. To conserve stocks, fishing – or more accurately, dredging – is tightly managed with the number of fishing boats and allocated fishing times (just 45 minutes twice a week!), both strictly regulated. This means that Coquilles Saint-Jacques are highly prized by restaurants and the wider public alike; the scallops of Brittany being renowned for their sweet, delicate flavour and meaty texture, and therefore best enjoyed simply pan-fried in a little butter.
An expensive delicacy in the early 19th century, demand for sardines surged with the improvements in canning technology which followed the opening of the world’s first large-scale sardine canning factory in Brittany in 1824. Almost two centuries later, Brittany remains by far France’s largest producer of sardines. For a long time, the west coast town of Douarnenez was the world’s foremost sardine fishing port and at the vanguard of industrial canning practises. While the numbers of fishing boats and canning factories have declined markedly from their early 20th century heights, the sardine is still an important catch here.
Small sardines, typically up to about six inches (15cm) long, are one of the most affordable fish you will find here and you’ll discover a range of fresh sardine dishes to choose from in lots of restaurants. Most sardines are landed between May and October but whether you choose to buy them fresh or canned, they are delicious when grilled or pan-fried.
In supermarkets, dedicated seafood shops and tourist boutiques, you will not fail to see shelves full of sardines canned in all manner of oils. It is worth noting that the expression “dressed in white” refers to sardines in extra-virgin olive oil whose silver belly is visible when the can is opened, while the term “dressed in blue” refers to sardines in vegetable oil whose blue-green back is visible.
Canned sardines keep for years, some connoisseurs insist that their taste improves over time, although many of these highly colourful decorative cans are bought never to be opened; purchased as a vacation souvenir or by an interested puxisardinophile. Yes, there’s a word for a collector of tinned sardines.
Sardines and their larger cousin, mackerel, are also available locally as a rillette, a type of rough textured pâté. A rillette made with either of these two healthy fish is usually eaten as an aperitif and served on tartines (small pieces of bread) or blinis. Whether you prefer yours lightly seasoned or flavoured with peppers, chili or mustard, these fish rillettes usually do not fail to impress; packing-in a lot of flavour within their rich texture and certainly worth trying if you enjoy fish.
Brittany, like other coastal regions of France, has its own traditional fish stew known as cotriade or kaoteriad. This is a fairly simple stew which is thought to have remained close to its origins from a time when trawlermen received a few bits of various fish from the day’s catch. Unlike Provençal’s bouillabaisse stew, cotriade did not traditionally contain shellfish, although they are often added nowadays, only fish such as eel, mullet, hake, mackerel and sardine were used together with garlic, onion and potato. So that each fish is properly cooked, care is taken to ensure that the different textures of fish are introduced into the pot at the right time. Once cooked, the stew is separated; the broth is taken first and then the fish.
Andouille de Guémené-sur-Scorff
The Guémené andouille is a smoked pork sausage that has escaped its roots in central Brittany and lost a lot of its character in its dalliance with the national supermarket chains and the industrial meat processing plants that tend to supply them. The lack of a protected geographical origin designation allowed the name to be applied to sausages that sometimes just do not quite match the texture and flavour of the artisanal original.
Recognisable by its black skin with contrasting beige/pink meat and its concentric rings, the result of a means of assembly which involves threading pigs’ intestines on top of each other, from the narrowest to the widest. Once assembled, the sausage is traditionally smoked over a beech wood fire for two days, losing half its weight; it loses another half of its weight while hung to dry for a further three weeks. If you are interested in tasting the andouille formerly made on farms in times past, there is one available that has been dried for nine months which should give you that “it’s been hanging in the fireplace for months” authenticity! The Guémené andouille is a smoky, salty sausage best eaten in very thin slices as a snack or a starter and hot, in thick slices, if served as a main dish.
While it may be surprising, I make no apologies for inserting a tinned meat into this list. Hénaff Pâté is sometimes described as ‘Brittany in a Box’ and like the crêpe, it has long since broken out of Brittany and conquered French hearts. Hénaff Pâté is made from the choicest pieces of pork such as tenderloins and hams, Guérande sea salt, pepper and a secret blend of spices, using a recipe unchanged in over a hundred years. The meat, which makes up 95% of the tin’s contents, is sourced exclusively from local farms and helps deliver a mature pâté that is high in taste and low in fat. A versatile food, Hénaff Pâté can be enjoyed on bread or toast, as a sandwich or snack but can also be cooked and eaten hot with rice or fried potato or diced into a salad. You will sometimes even see it sold in a pastry casing as a savoury pie. It’s worth trying just so that you can taste for yourself why this Breton product is the most popular pâté in France.
Crêpes & Galettes
You will be hard-pressed to find a town in Brittany that does not boast at least one Crêperie, serving up freshly made thin pancakes in a wide range of sweet and savoury forms. Crêpes are made with white flour and usually have a sweet filling such as sugar and butter, jam or Nutella and while often served for breakfast or dessert, they can be enjoyed at any time of day. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour and are usually served with a savoury filling such as cheese. They are a more substantial pancake and a galette complète, featuring ham, cheese and a fried egg, is a filling and tasty meal in itself. If you really get the taste for these treats, you will notice a difference in how the two pancakes are folded when served: galettes into rectangles, crêpes into triangles. However, if you buy from a street vendor or food stall, you will likely receive both crêpes and galettes folded into paper cones. Whether sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice or wrapped around a sausage or oozing with cheese; the crêpe is an omnipresent staple on the Breton menu.
Salted Butter Delights
Much of Breton cuisine is built upon the region’s creamy, rich butter made with coarse grains of natural sea salt harvested from the marshlands on the south coast of Brittany. I’ll not repeat an earlier post dedicated to this Breton icon but instead highlight in this list a few of Brittany’s most mouth-watering delicacies derived from its fabulous butter.
Firstly, salted butter caramels known as caramel au beurre salé in French. Possibly inspired by the Niniches de Quiberon (a popular caramel lollipop stick), a chocolatier from the same small Breton town of Quiberon perfected his recipe for salted butter caramel in the 1970s. Today, it is difficult to remember a time without this tasty treat whose heart of caramelized sugar, salted butter and cream is now enjoyed worldwide. Its versatility allows us to indulge our taste for salted butter caramel as a soft or hard candy, as a spread or as a sauce or even a pastry filling. Whether as confectionery or spread on a hot crêpe or crusty baguette or simply drizzled over a summer ice cream, do try some artisanal creations while you are here in the home of salted butter caramel.
Salted butter is also one of the key ingredients in two very popular Breton pastries; the Kouign Amman and Farz Fourn. The kouign amman (literally, butter cake in Breton) is hard to describe; layers upon layers of pastry are built up and folded-in, each smothered with salted butter and sugar and baked until very well caramelised. The result is a dense, sticky puff pastry-like cake with a crunchy golden crust, each flaky yet sticky bite delivers an intense salty, sweet, buttery flavour. Rich in texture, taste and calories! As if more flavour were needed, you will also find kouign amman made with apples, raspberries, cherries and all manner of other ingredients. Most good bakeries will make their own version of this cake which is best enjoyed warm.
You will see Farz Fourn (literally, baked far in Breton) often labelled under its French name Far Breton and you can often buy it by the slice in bakeries here. It is popularly made at home, as a dessert, and each family has its own ideas about what makes for a good far. As its heart, it is a rich, tasty thick-set creamy custard flan which is often found with prunes or apples added to the mix.
Plougastel in western Brittany has been producing strawberries since the 1740s when the South American white strawberry was first successfully cultivated in European soil. In time, this strawberry was cross-bred with the local wild strawberries to create the ‘garden strawberry’ that we know today. A thriving industry developed, Plougastel became the strawberry capital of France and one of the country’s wealthiest areas thanks to high-value exports to London and, following the arrival of the railway, Paris. Even up until WW2, about a quarter of all the strawberries grown in France came from this small area. While strawberry production in Plougastel, as across France, has fallen by half in the years since WW2, the town still produces about 2,400 tonnes of sweet berries each year.
Probably the tastiest variety of strawberry picked in Plougastel these days is the gariguette, a wonderful strawberry with an elongated body that smells as good as it tastes; a tender, juicy fruit with a sweet and ever so slightly tart taste. It’s sweet tasting enough to not need a dip into the sugar bowl, instead dip it into a bowl of fresh Chantilly cream.
This post was, of necessity, just a small taste of the unique and delicious fresh flavours that Brittany has to offer, so, there may well be a follow-up post one day.