Brittany in a Glass

As with its food, Brittany has a wide range of distinctive local drinks that you really should try during any visit to this beautiful part of France. The Bretons are a most hospitable people and whether you spend an evening in a small local bar or enjoy a few drinks after a lazy dinner at a seaside restaurant, you will be sure to enjoy a convivial experience with good opportunities to explore the many wonderful local beverages.

The wines of Brittany, such as Muscadet, are covered in an earlier post, so, I will not cover them again here.

Almost half of all the cider made in France is produced here in Brittany, a region that has a long association with apples and cider making. Perhaps not as well-known as Norman cider outside France but it was only in the wave of post-revolutionary changes that cider was legally allowed to be exported from Brittany. Almost all the published accounts of 19th century travellers to the region make a point of noting the Breton affinity for cider. This historical attachment to cider is as much a question of geography as of taste. Apples grow well in this climate and, unlike hops, were widely cultivated; most farms maintained a modest apple orchard to provide the family with fruit and drink throughout the year.

jug of Breton cider
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Despite the rural exodus and changes in habits and tastes over the last century or so, hundreds of different varieties of apples still flourish across Brittany. Those cultivated specifically for cider making are tended in an ideal climate for apples and grow well in the rich Breton soil. While domestic production of cider is nowhere near as widespread as it once was, the principles that applied to home-made cider in years gone by are still upheld by those farms that produce cider commercially today. The cider here is made using only freshly pressed apples with no additives, preservatives or concentrates at all. This passionate attention to terrain and tradition, key to the French concept of terroir, produces cider with a quite distinct character; enjoying a light sparkle and a deep, rich flavour with the subtle aromas of fruits and flowers.

Rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and mineral salts, the local ciders that you are likely to find in the bars and restaurants here are characterised by their slightly sharp but fruity taste; the producers work hard to create a drink with the optimum balance between bitter, acidic and sweet flavours and you will find colours that can range from pale gold to rich tawny brown.

Farm cider from Brittany
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Unfortunately, the local industry has seen a massive decline in output over the last five years, probably linked to the rise in popularity of artisanal beers but cider remains a very popular drink here. There are many great tasting local ciders to tempt you but do try a bottle of traditional or farm cider while you are in Brittany; you will see it noted as cidre fermier on the menu and bottle. The cidre fermier designation can only be used by ciders made exclusively from apples grown on that producer’s farm.

There are a few other differences that might particularly strike visitors from North America or the UK about the cider here. Cider is classed more subtly than simply dry or sweet. A dry cider (Brut) contains little sugar and therefore contains the most alcohol by volume, typically between 4 to 7 per cent, and its slightly bitter taste makes it a good accompaniment to seafood dishes; semi-dry (Demi-Brut) is fairly sparkling with an alcoholic volume of around 3.5 to 5 per cent and popularly drunk, it also goes well with chicken; sweet cider (Doux) contains the least amount of alcohol, less than 3 per cent by volume, and is a sparkling, sweet and fruity drink well suited to complement crêpes or desserts.

Sometimes, you will see a cider described as ‘bouché’ on a menu, if you order this then you can expect a bottle that is firmly blocked with a strong cork and securing metal wire. Typically, this will be a cider that was bottled into a champagne-style bottle soon after its first fermentation and corked. The little residual sugar in the cider allows a secondary fermentation to take place within the bottle. More often than not, you will receive your glass of cider served at your table in a terracotta or china bowl akin to a broad tea cup known as a bolée. This is the traditional way of drinking cider in Brittany and harks back to the days when glass was uncommon and expensive in the countryside.

a bolee of cider
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While production levels might have dipped in recent years, connoisseurs point out that Breton cider has continuously improved in quality over the last decade, with some cider runs coming together like a rare champagne for certain vintages. Of particular note is the Cidrerie Nicol’s Royal Guillevic, the only cider in France to wear the coveted Red Label. The Label Rouge is only awarded to those products that consistently deliver an item that consumers can expect to have a higher level of quality compared to similar products. On the other side of Brittany, the Domaine de Kerveguen produce organic ciders that grace the cellars of the Elysée Palace and are highly praised by Michelin starred chefs and celebrities.

Apples are the very essence of Pommeau de Bretagne, an alcoholic drink, about 17 per cent by volume, which enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée granting Brittany’s producers a little protection in using and marketing the name – and guaranteeing the buying public that the Pommeau’s terroir is really that of Brittany. Pommeau de Bretagne is a blend of two-thirds freshly-pressed unfermented apple juice and one-third local cider brandy, aged in oak casks for a minimum of 14 months. The drink, usually served as an aperitif or digestif, has a long tradition in Brittany and today there are 15 or so professional producers working with some 75 varieties of apples to help make their particular blend stand out. Try one of the offerings from Cidrerie Kerloïck. Depending on its age, you can expect an amber coloured liquid with a strong floral scent and an aromatic palette that fluctuates between baked apples or dried fruits and hints of almonds, caramel or honey.

Honey and apples are married together in another Breton speciality, Chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice. Traditionally, buckwheat honey is used and this helps develop the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance before becoming synonymous with the beverage. A distinction is sometimes made if the honeycomb is fermented in cider only, it is then usually known as chufere a word derived from chug ferv, the Breton for strong juice.

chouchenn or Breton mead
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Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over and the old stories always attribute this to over-indulgence and inevitable intoxication. However, careful analysis of Breton honey in the 20th century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives in use on Breton farms were the basket hives that necessitated smothering a lot of bees in order to access the honey. It was the presence of bee venom, which attacks the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance although I am sure that intoxication might also have played a part. Nowadays, there is a wide degree of conformity in the production of chouchen which now typically contains between 12 to 15 per cent of alcohol by volume and is drunk as an aperitif or digestif. There are many options for buying a good bottle of chouchen but I would recommend that you support the local artisan producer and choose one that has been made as close to you as possible.

Undoubtedly, one of the finest local drinks that you will come across in Brittany is Lambig which is sometimes labelled as Fine de Bretagne. This is a rich cider brandy that enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation and is produced locally by a traditional process of distillation in a retort (lambig being the Breton word for a retort). Today’s lambig is a direct descendent of the ‘farm brandy’ of yesteryear; a time when only a limited number of people had permission to operate stills and neighbours would smuggle in their home-made cider to use the still covertly, beyond the eyes of the prying excise man!

a rural still
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As in times past, today quality local cider is heated until the alcohol evaporates, the vapours are condensed, recovered and diluted until the alcohol content is reduced to about 40 per cent by volume. The brandy is then aged in oak barrels for several years. During this aging process, the brandy’s interaction with the wood of the barrel develops the lambig’s unique character; its aromatic complexity developing a subtle balance of fruity and woody fragrances.

Lambig can be found clear or amber coloured but it is a drink that always delivers a smooth, fruity and satisfying taste and is an ideal digestif. As with most brandies, the bottles are marked to indicate the age and thus degree of refinement that you might expect from your bottle: VS for lambig aged for at least two years; Old/Réserve for that aged at least three years; VO/Vieille Réserve to indicate at least four years of aging and Very Old Reserve/Hors d’Age for lambigs aged at least six years. Personally, I would recommend Fine Bretagne Gilles Leizour but there are about twenty fine producers to choose from here in Brittany.

Lambig and Pommeau Bretagne
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It may surprise you to learn that there are some decent Breton whiskies worth looking at. To be able to use the designation “Breton Whisky”, the whisky must adhere to certain quality standards surrounding the raw ingredients and production methods. While malted barley, smoked barley, wheat, buckwheat and rye are all permissible, the water used can only be drawn from Breton springs and the whisky fermented, distilled and aged in Brittany. The resultant whisky must be matured, in oak barrels, for at least three years and contain a minimum 40 per cent alcohol by volume.

There are currently eight distillers producing over 400,000 bottles of whisky a year in Brittany. A few of the more notable ones include Armorik, a highly regarded and award winning single malt whisky made with barley; Eddu, the only whisky in the world made from buckwheat; and Kornog, a peated single malt whose Roc’h Hir manifestation, aged in bourbon barrels and bottled at 46°, is a much sought after tipple and priced accordingly.

Whiskies from Brittany
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That most French of aperitifs, pastis, does not seem to have the same strong following here as in the rest of France but there is even a Breton pastis, Brastis, to try if you are feeling adventurous. Kir Breton is a popular aperitif in Brittany and consists of one part crème de cassis mixed with four parts of cider.

As for cocktails, you will find that the Spritz and Monaco are very popular here in the summer months but there are two distinctly Breton cocktails worth looking at.  A relative newcomer is the Cidrito; a Breton take on the classic Cuba Libre cocktail – local cider is added to a decent measure of Bacardi rum over ice and garnished with a little fresh mint. Brittany’s most famous cocktail must be the Godinette; macerated local strawberries marinated in lambig for a day before being mixed with Muscadet wine and left overnight to develop and served chilled in a glass with a drop of strawberry liqueur.

a Breton cocktail
A Godinette

Although Bretons have historically been cider drinkers, beer has been brewed commercially in Brittany since the early 17th century with production peaking in the late 19th century with thriving breweries spread across the region in places such as Saint-Brieuc, Morlaix, Brest, Landerneau, Quimper, Pontivy, Nantes and Rennes. Improved transport links and business consolidations saw the number of Breton breweries gradually decline until the last closed in 1985. By coincidence, this was also the year that the first micro-brewery was opened in France – in Morlaix, Brittany.

This brewery, Coreff (the Breton word for beer), was inspired by British real ales and soon developed a loyal following. Their early beers were amber, richly malted, unfiltered, unpasteurized and marketed as distinctly Breton. The brewery, now based in Carhaix, has expanded its range considerably and now offers over a dozen beers; white, blond, amber, red and brown, each with a distinctive taste. Still fiercely Breton, the brewer’s beer tents are ubiquitous at fetes and festivals across the region. If you attend a festival in Brittany, even a small local event, you will be almost certain to see them.

Established not long after Coreff, the Lancelot Brewery is another Breton brewer that started with a distinct offering – a honey beer flavoured with plant extracts and a beer brewed with barley and buckwheat – and now brews well over a dozen different types of beer, available in draught or bottles in bars and restaurants across Brittany.

Since the mid-1990s, Brittany has cemented its position as the centre of French craft beer and now boasts about 160 active micro-breweries producing over a thousand different Breton beers. There are now over half a dozen breweries who offer a range in excess of twenty beers; the brewery with the most extensive range is Saint-Brieuc’s La Guernouillette which offers around thirty different beers.

Craft beer from Brittany
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With so many local beers to choose from, you can either play safe and go with a type of beer that you are familiar with or try something a little different such as Lancelot’s La Blanche Hermine, an IPA with a strong taste of hops; or Brasserie La Belle Joie’s Gamme 56, a dark rich beer brewed with buckwheat; or Coreff’s Dramm Hud is a strong blond beer with a malty flavour.

If you prefer to enjoy soft drinks then you may be surprised to see that the multi-national corporations get a real run for their money here in Brittany. While bottled water from Perrier is, of course, widely available, you are just as likely to be offered the local bottled water from Plancoët. Similarly, lemonades and colas are not the sole preserve of Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo as both face strong competition from Breizh Cola, France’s first regional cola, a tasty refreshing beverage that has built up a strong following and decent market share over the last 18 years.

Whatever your taste and preference, you will be almost certain to find something to enjoy that gives you a taste of Brittany in any visit here. Please drink responsibly and raise a glass to the Breton saying that translates along the lines of : “A glass is fine; three glasses … it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine”.

Breizh Cola

Tastes of Brittany

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?

Seafood

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.

oysters from Brittany
Oyster beds on the Côte des Légendes

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.

Mussels from Brittany
Moules Frites

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.

Langoustine
Langoustines

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.

King Scallops
Coquilles Saint-Jacques

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.

sardines from Brittany

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.

Fish rilette
Rillette

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.

Andouille
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Hénaff Pâté

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.

Henaff pate
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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.

crepes and galettes from Brittany
Galette

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 caramel from Brittany
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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.

kouign amman Brittany
Kouign Amman

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 Strawberries

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.

Plougastel strawberries
Gariguettes

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.

Celebrating Mardi-Gras in Brittany

The origins of what we now know as Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi-Gras in France, most likely stem from pagan celebrations that marked the end of winter and heralded the coming of spring. Long standing and widely observed seasonal celebrations that morphed with the Matronalia feasts of the Roman Empire before later becoming Christianized to mark the start of Lent.

Lent, the forty days before Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday and recalls the forty years spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel under Moses and the forty days that Christ spent in the desert after his baptism, before the commencement of his mission. For Christians, it was and remains for many, a period of introspection, where one abstained from meat and rich foodstuffs such as fatty or sweet foods.

The day immediately preceding Ash Wednesday marks the end of the period of excess or ‘seven fat days’ before the Lenten fasting period begins, it is thus ‘Fat Tuesday’, literally translated as Mardi-Gras. Today, it is customary to eat crêpes, pancakes, doughnuts or waffles on Mardi-Gras or Pancake Day as it is known in many parts of the world. Such an indulgence is a relic from the times when these dishes were made to purposefully exhaust the scarce reserves of eggs and butter that were not going to be used during Lent. This was a genuine sacrifice during a time when most common people enjoyed, at best, a simple and relatively poor diet.

carnival scene
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In anticipation of forty days of austerity where folk would typically eat only millet with water or milk, pea puree and porridge, the festivities associated with the period before Lent were an opportunity for people to let their hair down, to release and revitalise, ahead of the hard work brought with the arrival of spring. They were informal, relaxed opportunities to gather together in shared fellowship with friends and neighbours; to dance, to sing, to tell tall tales, to feast and make merry.

While some Breton Mardi-Gras favourites, such as craquelines and crêpes are widely recognised, a sweet dish known as the Farz Buen was also very popular; imagine a deconstructed pancake made with a thick crêpe batter and lots of sugar and salted butter, the mixture is fried until the pieces are carmelised and sprinkled with more sugar. In south west Brittany, the Bara Dous was another Mardi-Gras speciality; a soft very sweet bread made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and a dash of alcohol, sometimes raisins were added too. This region of Brittany also enjoyed another quite distinct Mardi-Gras culinary tradition, the Chotten or pig’s cheek.

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, it was common for even the most meagre households to raise a pig or two for the purpose of feeding the family and to sell some of the good cuts of meat for money to buy another pig. The pig was therefore a valuable commodity and no part of the butchered animal was wasted; just the offal from one animal alone could keep a large family well-nourished for a fortnight. For those animals slaughtered in the run-up to Mardi-Gras, the pig’s heads, having first been cut in half and well soaked in brine, were brought to the neighbourhood baker or communal bread oven to be baked in the oven, after the bread. Here, they roasted in the pre-heated oven for several hours before emerging steaming and golden brown, to the delight of the salivating spectators.

In some parts of eastern Brittany, a little broth made with andouille, a smoked pork sausage, was saved for Mardi-Gras and a little sprinkled around the farmyard in order to protect hens from attacks by foxes over the year ahead. Another old rural superstition said that it was bad luck to spin on Mardi-Gras lest the mice consume the thread for the rest of the year.

In the more dispersed rural parts of Brittany, Mardi Gras was an opportunity to gather together with family, friends and the wider community. It was a time for merrymaking, feasting, drinking and for playing games. Games such as sack racing, running with ducks, skittles or eating sausages suspended from a line were not just for the children but there were some games that were the preserve of the adult men, such as wrestling, pole-raising, tug-o-war or cutting off the head of a suspended goose with a single blow while riding past on horseback on a cart.  A game known as the Russian Bucket was also popularly played in times past; a tub of water or a concoction of more noxious substances was suspended over a street. At the base of this tub was a board pierced with a hole. Standing in a hand-pulled cart, it was necessary to pass a wooden lance through the hole underneath the tub. If the aim failed, the tub would tip, spilling its contents all over the competitor.

a Breton mardi gras game
Commune de Guerlesquin : Championnat du monde de Boulou Pok

In the picturesque town of Guerlesquin, on the day of Mardi-Gras only, the men of the town play a game known as Bouloù Pok. The men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square, with the orientation of the main entrance of each house used to settle any disputed cases. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the boulou – an individually carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a cut wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the bragging rights to be called ‘World Champion of Bouloù Pok’.  The origins of this unique game are lost to us but a contribution register from 1856 indicates that the game had been played long before that date and local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.

Mardi-Gras celebrations in the Breton cities were, much like the pagan festivals of earlier times, widely regarded by the locals as a period of license and officially-tolerated disorder. The spirit of carnival prevailed: social conventions were temporarily cast aside, roles were reversed; men dressed as women, the poor in the fashion of the well-to-do, sailors dressed as agricultural peasants and vice versa. Through costume and disguise, one’s station in life could be momentarily overturned and forgotten. The mask of anonymity allowed a mischievous opportunity for people to harangue and poke fun at authority and those who wielded it.

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Parades often gave rise to parodies of religious processions but such outrages were tolerated by the religious and civil authorities, even if they reproached the excesses of the multitude or the ridicule of which they were the victims. In time, these urban parades and celebrations overflowed from Mardi-Gras itself to range over several days of festivities. In the 19th century, some local authorities in Brittany tried to gain a measure of control over these celebrations with the organisation of official cavalcades and approved organising committees.

Some Breton towns continue to host impressive Mardi-Gras celebrations that draw thousands of participants and spectators from far and wide. The biggest carnival in Brittany is Les Gras de Douarnenez which, since 1835, features a succession of parties, costume balls, dances and carnival parades that take place, over five days, every year around mid-February. On the first evening, the Den Paolig (poor man in Breton), symbol of the event, is enthroned as king of carnival. Made of chicken wire and papier-mâché, this ten foot (3m) high effigy is moulded to resemble a local personality, whose identity is kept secret until the last moment.

Sunday is the busiest and noisiest day of the week and features the grand parade which brings together people of all ages in colourful costumes and innovative, if wacky, floats. The celebrations are drawn to a close on Ash Wednesday with the trial and conviction (it is always found guilty!) of the Den Paolig who now serves as scapegoat for all the ills of the townsfolk and is ritually burned on a bonfire on a quay in the town’s port, just before the final firework display. This year’s event runs from 22 to 26 February.

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Although no longer strictly a part of today’s political Brittany, the old capital city, Nantes, stages one of the biggest and oldest Mardi-Gras carnivals in France. This is a large, colourful event with its roots in the Middle Ages and features, over a week, a series of spectacles and events between the Sunday opening parade and the big night parade the following Saturday. This year, the event will be staged from 29 March to 4 April 2020.

If you do happen to attend one of the many Mardi-Gras celebrations in Brittany, you might wish to bear in mind a hopeful proverb from these parts: ‘If the sun is here for Mardi Gras, it will stay throughout Lent’.

Mardi Gras in Brittany

Witchcraft in Brittany

In 1917, the author Lewis Spence claimed that sorcery “in the civilised portions of Brittany is but a thing of yesterday, while in the more secluded departments it is very much a thing of to-day. The old folk can recall the time when the farm, the dairy, and the field were ever in peril of the spell, the enchantment, the noxious beam of the evil eye”.

In the 17th century, the division between natural and supernatural differed markedly from our modern-day notions. The concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was widely accepted that demons and witches existed in nature, acting according to its laws. Witchcraft helped some to explain the world around them; whether that was a hailstorm in summer or a pail of fresh milk turning sour overnight. Thus the activities of witches were regarded as natural phenomena by most people. A notable unbeliever being the noted 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that belief in witchcraft originated in ignorance of natural causes and was promulgated and encouraged by self-serving priests.

While the word witch is now almost exclusively applied to women, it was not always so. Derived from the Old English word wicce which related to magic and sorcery, the word evolved into wicche in the Middle English period and did not differentiate between masculine and feminine subjects. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the current spelling was in use and described a woman who attempted to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces in order to effect changes.

the shameful kiss with the Devil
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In the late Renaissance period, the accepted characteristics of a witch varied but a little across Europe; they were held to engage in illicit or dangerous practices usually in secret, carried the power to use evil forces and possessed an innate capacity for harm. In Brittany, they were also held to have the ability to talk the languages of the beasts. However, some distinctions were made between witches along the lines of what we would nowadays call ‘white witches’ and ‘black witches’.  The ends of the spectrum being, on the one hand, the cunning folk or folk healers who treated ailments, cured illnesses, enhanced fertility, divined springs or misplaced items and marshalled fair weather. On the other hand were the witches who practised sorcery invoking, usually, malevolent spirits in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others. In French, the word sorcier encompassed the full spectrum of witchcraft.

At this time, accusations of witchcraft generally included accusations of Satanism; the witch being accused of having rejected God and entered into an alliance with the Devil. Unfortunately, examples of such trails were not rare throughout 17th century Europe; one of the most notable cases taking place just over the Breton border in Loudun. Where, in 1632, a group of nuns from the local Ursuline convent claimed to suffer strange visions and hallucinations causing them to behave erratically with displays of fits and convulsions. Under investigation by Church authorities, the nuns accused a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, of sexual assault and of having bewitched them, sending Asmodeus (the demon of lust) and other demons to commit evil and impudent acts upon them.

Despite his vow of celibacy, Grandier was known to have had sexual relationships with a number of women and had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer around town, much to the ire of husbands and fathers alike. As hysteria around the events at the convent increased, Grandier’s enemies seized upon the opportunity to orchestrate his downfall. Public exorcisms during which nuns barked, spoke in tongues, screamed blasphemies and performed obscene contortions were performed to no avail. These mass demonic possessions were regarded as powerful witchcraft and Grandier was accused of having acted as the agent of evil.

In 1632, he was arrested on charges of witchcraft, interrogated, tried and convicted by a tribunal directed by a special envoy appointed by Cardinal Richelieu; a magistrate well practiced in trying witches and a relative of the convent’s Mother Superior. This lady provided one of the key pieces of evidence used against Grandier – a document purporting to be his pact with the Devil and helpfully signed by him, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi.

We, the all-powerful Lucifer, seconded by Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, Astaroth and others, have today accepted the pact of alliance with Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And we promise him the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of nuns, worldly honours, lusts and riches. He will go whoring every three days; drunkenness will be dear to him. He will offer to us once a year a tribute marked with his blood; he will trample under-foot the sacraments of the church, and he will say his prayers to us. By virtue of this pact, he will live happily for twenty years on earth among men and will later come among us to curse God. Done in hell, in the council of demons. . Signed by Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi and set down by Baalberith.

Urbain Grandier pact with the Devil
Grandier’s pact with the Devil

My lord and master Lucifer, I acknowledge you as my God and prince, and promise to serve and obey you while I live. From this hour, I renounce the other God, as well as Jesus Christ and all the saints and the apostolic and Roman church, all the sacraments and all the prayers and petitions which might be made for me. I promise to adore you and pay you homage thrice a day and to do the most evil that I can and to lead into evil as many others as possible. I renounce chrism, baptism and all the merits of Jesus Christ and his saints. And if I fail to serve you, I give you my life as your own, having dedicated it for ever without any will to repent. .Signed, Urbain Grandier, from hell.

On 18 August 1634, Grandier was sentenced to be tortured and burned alive at the stake; his ashes scattered to the winds. There was widespread public interest in the trial and Loudon was swelled with thousands of onlookers who had come to town in anticipation of a guilty verdict; the sentence was therefore carried out immediately.

The ropes, boards, and mallets used in the torture known as The Boot were exorcised to ensure no demons would interfere and relieve Grandier’s suffering. It took almost an hour before his legs were completely crushed to a pulp and still he refused to confess to witchcraft. With a rope around his neck, he was hauled through the streets on a cart to beg forgiveness for his sins. At the place of execution, a piece of iron was used to keep his broken body upright against the stake which, along with the straw and wood, was exorcised to prevent any intercessions by his diabolical partners. Grandier made several attempts to speak but his words did not reach the baying crowd as Capuchin friars silenced him with buckets of holy water and blows to his mouth with an iron crucifix. After the pyre had burned itself out and embers cast to the wind, the crowd surged forward to scavenge any detritus; the relics of a witch being popularly believed to form the basis for powerful charms and spells.

Urbain Grandier burned at the stake
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Another notorious witchcraft trial in Brittany happened in the town of Fougères in 1642 when Isaac Marais was accused of having used curses and incantations to the devil in the treatment of the plague some years earlier. It is unclear whether, under torture, he denounced Mathurin Trullier, chaplain of the Saint-Sulpice church in Fougères and an accomplice with whom he had been involved in conducting alchemical experiments in search of the Philosophers’ Stone. Trullier was arrested and also charged with sexually assaulting a young girl and of possessing grimoires. The two cases were heard together at the Breton Parliament, then sitting in Rennes. On 19 January 1643, the pair were convicted of lèse-majesté divine for having used magic arts and spells; a rather vague charge that could cover transgressions ranging from petty counterfeiting to high treason. Both were sentenced to death, Marais to the gallows and Trullier condemned to be tortured and burned alive.

After enduring the torture of The Boot and neither confessing their crimes or denouncing others, Trullier and Marais, with ropes around their necks, were led to door of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral to beg for forgiveness. Trullier was taken through the cheering mob to the pyre set-up in the nearby Place des Lices where he was tied to the tall stake and burnt; the fire’s ashes being subsequently scattered to the four cardinal points of the compass. Marais swung from the gallows nearby.

The persecution and prosecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly focused on the notion that they were heretics who had renounced God and made a pact with the Devil and in some countries this new concept was even introduced into criminal law, making witchcraft an offence under both ecclesiastical and common law. Slowly perceptions about witches turned from the harmless traditional healer to a dangerous sorceress in league with the Devil, the source of her magical powers and the object of her adoration. Closely related to this, was the idea that witches who made pacts with the Devil also worshipped him collectively and engaged in a number of blasphemous, immoral and obscene rites in gatherings known as Sabbaths.

devils and witches Sabbat dance
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This new perception of witchcraft was propounded by the Papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 and refined in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. The effect of these two documents over the next two centuries was profound; recommending deception and torture to obtain confessions and extermination rather than redemption seen as the only sure remedy to contain witchcraft.

The Malleus Maleficarum describes how women, rarely men, become inclined to practice witchcraft, arguing that women are more susceptible to demonic temptations through the innate weaknesses of their gender; the demon assails them in particular, being weaker in faith than men. Men could sometimes be witches but the impetus behind male witches was attributed to ambition and a desire for power rather than from faithfulness or lust, as was claimed for female witches. Women possessed loose tongues, a temperament towards flux and were defective in all the powers of body and soul. Lest there be any doubt that women were being targeted as the villain, the very title of the document uses the feminine noun, Maleficarum! The result of this deeply misogynistic text was that over three quarters of those subsequently prosecuted as witches in Europe were women.

A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church, a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first Apostles preached to them. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore a prime target for Christian revivalists and evangelical missions abounded.

The principal 17th century Jesuit missionary to Brittany, the Blessed Julien Maunoir, kept an extensive journal of his 43 years work in the region and these formed the basis for Xavier-Auguste Séjourné’s biography, Histoire du vénérable serviteur de Dieu (1895). In it, he recounts that nine years into Maunoir’s mission he met his first ‘follower of hell’ in Saint-Guen in 1649. A young man he met said he was persecuted and threatened with death for having deserted a secret society. He spoke of nocturnal assemblies held on a large, deserted moor.

There, by torchlight that gave the light of day, a noisy crowd engaged in all kinds of games of chance such as dice and cards, while others danced around a golden throne on which sat a horrible monster. He was the king of this empire of darkness. Above all, it was necessary to pay him homage of fidelity. In return, he promised happiness that would last as long as life. Adore him, give him shameful kisses, give him body and soul, such were the tributes demanded. Furthermore, he demanded the merrymakers deny God, Christ, the Virgin, the sacraments, the Holy Church, that they renounce the faith of His baptism and the worship of saints especially Saint Anne and Saint Corentin. The unhappy culprit admitted to having submitted to these infamous conditions and to seal the infernal pact he had concluded, he had been struck on the neck with an indelible mark and his name written in a black book with the blood that had been drawn from one of his fingers. Thereafter, for many months, he took his share of the banquets, dances and abominable secrets of which the Sabbath was the theatre.

a witches sabbath
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Maunoir feared that ‘the evil’ had deep roots in central Brittany and was much more extensive than he had thought. “The Sabbath was the meeting not of a small number but of a considerable multitude. We saw people of all ranks and all conditions: men, women, young people, daughters and children whom their parents had devoted to the Devil from their birth, sometimes even before. The gentleman struck the country shepherd there; the woman of the lowest condition, the high-born lady; and in the middle of this filthy bog, one could distinguish priests. The place where they met was not always the same but most often it was a huge heath which was called the crossroads of the Seven Ways”.

Séjourné relates other instances of what Maunoir called the Iniquity of the Mountain around Saint-Guen: “A man whose name and authority inspired all confidence, had asked a young girl to accompany him to a meeting where she would find, he told her, a lot of pleasure. When she got there, she was in the middle of the Sabbath. She was immediately asked to renounce Jesus Christ and worship the Devil.

Another time, one of the most daring characters in the sect – must we say that he was a priest? – had offered to an old peasant woman at a Sabbath, an enchanted mirror where he showed her Father Bernard and Father Maunoir surrounded by demons. They taught her to mould portraits of the two missionaries in wax. The operation finished, she had to prick the effigy with a needle every day while reciting certain cabalistic formulas. To this stratagem, their death was assured at short notice. Two years later, the two Fathers visited a parish near the one where this woman lived. She had never seen the missionaries except through her enchanted mirror. Great was her surprise to recognize them and especially to find them alive. The obvious uselessness of her spell became the cause of her conversion.”

The missionaries were not surprised to encounter witches and what they termed Devil worshippers in parts of Brittany; it was no more remarkable than in other parts of France and Europe yet the extent of religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, alarmed them. Re-building a deeper faith took time and zeal; mission priests worked in pairs, parish by parish, staying in each for up to six weeks every five years or so, not leaving until the entire adult population had made confession. “How to confess so much sacrilege, blasphemy and turpitude? Had these people not renewed every month, between the Devil’s hands, the promise to descend into hell rather than disclose anything to a confessor of their monstrous attacks against God, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints?”

depiction of hell in church
Fresco depicting the torments of hell from the church at Kernascléden

Maunoir had been given a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum by his predecessor and mentor Dom Michel Le Nobletz in 1641 with the words “A day will come when you will draw from this book of great lights to lead the souls deceived by the Devil”. It was a work he drew heavily from when framing instructions for his missionaries in search of witches. He noted that demons enter their victims through dreams and tempted them to assemblies with pleasures of the flesh. Thus, when interrogating a virgin, it was necessary to ask her of her dreams: did she dream of beasts or of men? Did they offer her gifts and make promises to her, as lovers do? Did she feel the weight of their body on hers as she slept? Did she think about her dreams during the day? If the penitent was married, the questions turned to her children; how many does she have and how many did she sacrifice to the Devil? The question of abortion was also to be confronted, interrogators were instructed to ask how many children the woman had lost and whether the Devil had told her that she had too many children and that neighbours would mock her because she had not the means to feed them all. Had she ever desired the death of the unborn child she once carried?

Such questions were strikingly similar to those asked of women in Brittany a hundred years later, long after the witch-hunting frenzy had died away, as part of a typical official investigation to assess a woman’s honour. The key difference being that positive answers in a witch-hunt carried demonic as well as criminal implications. Unfortunately, the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment did nothing to enlighten attitudes towards women and in the 18th century, the position of women in Brittany was little better than it had been in previous centuries. Even Europe’s most influential Enlightenment era philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered that “there are no good morals for a woman outside a withdrawn and domestic life”.

Lone women in particular were open to accusations of immoral living and punishments were severe with public humiliation, confiscation of all assets, prison and even banishment. False accusations – and an accusation was often enough to completely destroy a woman’s reputation and livelihood – were an all too easy means of ridding oneself of a rival whether in business or love. As in the witch-hunts of earlier times, women were also the common accusers of other women and just as in the witch-hunts, an accusation was enough to kick-start formal investigations. It was almost impossible to successfully defend oneself against charges as vague as moral misconduct. Conviction for crimes against morality rarely required any more evidence than a denunciation and a supporting testimony. It was often enough to simply show that a woman had been in the wrong place or in bad company or even badly dressed!

Similarities between 16th and 17th century witch-hunts and an 18th century ‘honour trial’ do stand scrutiny. The methods of detection and punishment were similar and both targeted non-conformist or unconventional women and relied on evidence that could almost always neither be proven nor disproven. Both were predominantly trials by suspicion, usually based on anonymous and vague denunciations, a standard pro forma wording of accusations and the general non-conformity of the accused; usually masterless women or societal misfits who could be punished on the most cursory of evidence.

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The vast majority of those accused of witchcraft or dishonourable conduct were women; who were expected to uphold standards never expected of men. Many have claimed that the majority of women accused of witchcraft were probably guilty of nothing more than possessing a forceful and forthright personality and were likely well known in their neighbourhood as being unconventional or notorious for behaving in a way that was regarded as contrary to society’s notion of proper female decorum.

The psychologist Léon Marillier, writing in 1893, proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately comes to mind, is a supernatural explanation; a manifestation of the human tendency to treat objects of the imagination as real entities. So, we should not be too surprised to see that despite the formal disdain of society, people continued to consult the Groac’h or local witch to assuage ills, retain livelihoods by inviting her intercession to ensure the health of livestock and crops, seeking her assistance in affairs of the heart or as a fortune-teller. With many witches adept at healing or popularly held to be gifted in lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment, the witch’s position in rural society was often an ambivalent one.

One of the most well-known witches of modern times was Naïa, the witch of Rochefort-en-Terre, who lived in the ruins of Rieux castle just outside the picturesque small town. Daughter of a local bone-setter, she claimed never to eat and relished in the air of mystery that surrounded her. A herbalist of some skill, she was a popular yet marginal figure at the same time; a loner who lived at the very fringe of society. In her time, she was quite well known in southern Brittany and was consulted by a broad cross-section of people, from star-crossed lovers to litigants in property disputes. The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described his meeting with Naïa in the Wide World Magazine in 1899.

“She stood there, in her majestic ugliness, solemn and imposing like Pythia of ancient times. We watched each other in silence. Her eyes inspired dread: sunken in their sockets, creamy in colour, glassy like those of the dead. Her hands, large and bony, were resting on a thorny staff and a sort of colourless shawl, partially covering her head and shoulders, fell to her feet. Long strands of white hair slid out of her hood. An indomitable will was imprinted on her wrinkled face, with an expression of intelligence even more striking than the hideous ugliness of her appearance.”

“The oldest among the old men remember Naïa. Their early childhood was lulled by the magical tales of her exploits. They have always known her unique silhouette, that is to say the same appearance, an invariable costume, neither newer nor older, and her gait, her features, her vigour, would escape the attacks of age. From there, they conclude to the immortality of Naïa.

There was a touching unanimity to convince me of this: namely that Naïa did not eat or drink and that, in memory of man, she had not entered a farm, a house or a shop to buy or ask what the common people usually dispense daily in the uses of life.”

Naia the Breton witch
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He recounts the experiences of Jean Élain, a farmer from Pluherlin, with Naïa: “While I was telling my story, my tongue sometimes went into my throat from what I saw. First, she started a wood fire with smoke that I sneezed at every moment, and my eyes stung horribly. Then she threw dry herbs into the flames, which she removed from the pockets of her apron. Instantly, the fire started to speak. Yes sir! She would make little cries and chuckle with laughter. Suddenly, Naïa picked up the red coals with her fingers and placed them in her hands like a bouquet. I couldn’t speak but I heard myself called by my dead wife whose voice I recognized. Thereupon, Naïa gnashes her teeth and crushes the red coals between her palms. So, she started to tell me such shenanigans that a cunning lawyer would have gotten lost and thanks to her, I won my case.”

“Finally, and this borders on demonism, a notable family from Rochefort told me that, on the same day, the witch was met at very distant distances by two brothers. One, disembarking at Malensac, met her near the vast abandoned slate quarries, and the second, who was at the Questembert fair around the same time, swore to me that Naïa had called him by name.”

Naïa clearly had a sense of the dramatic; among her last words to Géniaux, she asked that he report their meeting thus: “Tell them also that I am not a foolish good woman, like their city sleepwalkers. I have the power! Me! And Gnâmi is stronger than death. He is The One Who Can, The One Who Wants, The One We Do Not See.”

The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany

Much has been written about the legends and old folktales of Brittany. Indeed, the region is often still described as a land of myths and legends; a place where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural did not really exist until the last century.

I do not propose to relate these Breton tales here; there are scores of books in French and Breton and dozens available in English that tell well the tales and legends of yesterday. Instead, I hope to offer a brief survey of how and when the rich folklore of Brittany was mined and brought from the Breton hearth before a global audience.

Myths, legends and folk tales are the cornerstones of oral literature; they can, at times, coalesce but are distinct. Legends are usually anchored in a reality whether it is a specific locality, an event or actual person. In the oral tradition, the legend was recounted as a witnessed testimony or told by a trusted source such as a loved one whose sincerity was accepted. Legends often attempt to explain natural phenomena and the world around us, cautioning against particular dangers, or highlighting a way out of a predicament; they provide an easy if simple edification. Thus, it is the theme of the legend that is of more importance than the story wrapped around it. Legends are temporal and, over time, recast with characters and heroes who are more familiar to the storyteller and his listeners.

In a folktale, the listener is transported into the realm of fantasy and fiction but a tale can be far more than mere fireside entertainment and is often a vehicle to express and transmit thoughts and ideas, even ones that might be frowned upon were they not couched within the cloak of fantasy. Other tales possess a strong initiatory character, pointing to the transition from childhood to adulthood, or serve to underpin societal norms. Within tales, we can sometimes glimpse suggestions of long-dead beliefs that have left no other traces.

Tristram and Ysonde
Tristan and Isolde or Tristram and Ysonde of Breton folklore

In recognising the broad scope of legends and folktales, we must not lose sight of the mythic tales which are sometimes dressed as legends or have morphed into common folktales.  Myths are often highly symbolic making no pretence to be anything other than fantastical but grey areas abound. A good example might be the King Arthur and the sage Merlin found in the ancient lore of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall. While there is no firm evidence that these people actually existed, they are alluded to by ancient tradition as genuine historical characters, lingering as real figures in the collective folk memory, rather than obvious characters in a folktale. When hearing stories about people whose historical existence is doubtful we therefore need to consider whether we might be dealing with a veiled folktale or possibly a distorted myth.

Some Breton tales contains characters, plots and motifs found in the old tales of other parts of the Celtic world and far beyond. While such tales might have been collected by folklorists in Brittany, they are not all any more Breton than Welsh or Romanian but the tales do possess a strongly distinctive Breton colour and offer some insights into the customs and manners prevalent in Brittany at the time the tales were set down. If, as some have suggested, there really are no completely Breton tales, certain categories of tales such as religious tales often featuring the deeds of local saints, certain motifs such as the stick of Iann he vaz houarn (more popularly known as John the Bear) and certain characters, such as the Ankou (the Breton personification of death) and the korrigans are uniquely Breton.

Breton folklore
The Ankou and other fantastic creatures of Breton folklore

Perhaps the earliest examples of a collection of tales common in Brittany were collations of the exempla used by medieval preachers, such as St Vincent Ferrer, to emphasise moral conclusions.  While these bear the indelible imprint of their ecclesiastical origin, some examples sit somewhere between common tale and popular legend and feature identifiable characters and distinct locations. Others contain stories, some quite fantastic, about the lives of Breton saints not found in the hagiographies but were clearly commonly known.

The first widely available compilation of common French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. A bestseller in its day, the collection, only partly derived from traditional folk tales, included such stories as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. The extent to which these stories are original creations, taken from earlier folkloric traditions or based on stories written by earlier writers such as Boccaccio and Basile remains a matter of some debate. Whatever the genesis of these fantastic tales, the significance of Perrault’s collection is that this was their first appearance in an easily accessible popular form.

However, the popularity of Perrault’s tales did not immediately lead to a wave of imitators or stimulate fresh research into traditional folk tales. In France, interest in such stories waned significantly, particularly in the year’s following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715.  Not until the so-called Celtic Revival of the late 18th century, did people start taking a serious look at popular culture in Brittany. With a nod to Perrault, Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1795), briefly notes a few of the Breton folk tales encountered on his tour through Lower Brittany, such as; the lost city of Ker-Is, the malevolent korrigans, King Portzmarc’h with his horse’s ears and even a Bluebeard in the form of Count Conomor.

Bluebeard from Brittany
Bluebeard or Count Conomor?

With the notable exception of an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. This was a time when interest in traditional folk tales across Europe was heightened by the publication of Children’s and Household Tales by the brothers Grimm, in ever expanding editions, between 1812 and 1857, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1837.

It was therefore natural that eyes would fall on Brittany, a relatively isolated part of France (only since 1536) where French speakers were in the minority; a region considered by outsiders as one seeped in mystery and its Celtic past.  There was an expectation that the region’s old folk tales and legends would possibly bear witness to the ancient beliefs of the Celts. However, this interest in examining Brittany’s old beliefs and customs was unwelcome for some who had already faced the anti-Breton prejudices of France’s metropolitan elite such as Jean-Jacques Le Maguérèze who wrote in his Ethologie Bas Bretonne (1840):

“… banish from your mind the superstitions which are the daughter of fear and ignorance … remember well that the time of fairies has passed and that we live in the nineteenth century which must regenerate the world … This harsh truth will no longer be said of you: that the children of Armorica are four centuries behind in civilization.”              

The main difficulty in accurately identifying echoes of past beliefs in folktales lies not only in peeling away the layers that generations of storytellers have added to the core tale but also the neutral veracity of the compiler and collector of such tales. Too much editing or modernising of tales taken from a primarily oral tradition can lead us to infer a past that existed only in the mind of the compiler or even his publisher.

Théodore Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, published a ground-breaking collection of traditional Breton folk tales, legends and ballads in 1839 under the title Barzaz Breiz (Ballads of Brittany); a seminal work that was initially greeted with widespread popular acclaim. However, within a generation, Breton scholars were questioning the legitimacy of much of the collected works, claiming that the language used was not the authentic language of the common people who were said to have provided La Villemarqué with his source material. Further, they accused him of having overly enhanced the original stories and even of fabricating some of the tales and ballads himself.

La Villemarqué’s work is now widely accepted to have strong historical legitimacy but it is impossible to accurately affirm precisely how much of his published work is authentic folklore and how much his own creation. Even a comparison with the work of his fiercest contemporary critic, François-Marie Luzel, provides little real illumination as his work contains only a few of the ‘originals’ featured in the Barzaz Breiz. Whatever the degree of artistic licence employed by La Villemarqué, his work on Breton folklore cannot be ignored for there is much to commend it and after all it was he who introduced the legend of the lost city Ker-Is and the antics of the korrigans to the wider world.

the korrigans fairies
Korrigans

Building on his 1835-37 publication, The Last Bretons, the versatile author Émile Souvestre published a collection of Breton folktales in The Breton Hearth in 1844. Containing a large number of local folktales and legends including the phantom washerwomen of the night, the book was a contemporary counterpart to the Breton tales and legends of La Villemarqué’s Barzaz Breiz and, illustrative of Souvestre’s ambitions as a writer, a collection of tales he considered The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany.

The strong groundwork laid by La Villemarqué and Souvestre was built upon by François-Marie Luzel who spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing folk tales and legends in Lower Brittany. Despite his frustrations over the disdain for true popular culture then prevalent in Parisian intellectual circles, he persevered in his efforts to highlight native popular culture as a worthy field of study. His Breton Tales (1870), Christian Legends of Lower Brittany (1881) and Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) have rightly become classics, remaining in print to this day.

A key difference between Luzel and his predecessors was his development and adherence to a systematic and methodical cataloguing and classification of his sources and collection. In his preface to Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) he notes:

“All my tales were collected in the language in which they were told to me, that is to say in Breton. I reproduced them, under the dictation of the storytellers, on the graphite pencil then I ironed them later in ink, finally, I set them down and translated them into French, filling the small gaps of inevitable form and abbreviations, when writing a spoken narrative. I kept all my notebooks, which demonstrate the fidelity that I tried to bring in the reproduction of what I heard, without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.

Breton storytellers are usually quite verbose and often like to give themselves a career, believing to increase the interest of their stories by introducing episodes borrowed from other tales. I have almost always followed them, in these detours, preferring here fidelity to the pleasure of a literary and well-deduced composition. The critics will later sort out and will be able to restore the elements that belong to each fable.”

This methodological approach was subsequently taken up by others, including his life-long friend, Anatole Le Braz. The two Bretons worked together on Folk Songs of Upper Brittany (1890) before Le Braz focused on fieldwork centred on gathering legends and superstitions surrounding Breton beliefs regarding death, the afterlife and the relationships of the dead with the living. In just a few years, within a narrow geographical region of Lower Brittany, Le Braz collected around a hundred legends, many of which have no parallels in the stories published by Luzel. His book The Legend of Death in Lower Brittany (1893) was met this widespread acclaim and offered the wider world many new insights into the character of the Ankou and the Anaon (the community of the dead).

legends of death

Luzel also influenced another prominent Breton, Paul Sébillot, whom he first met in 1875, encouraging him to collect local folk stories and to employ a methodological approach to their curation. Initial results appeared in The Folk Tales of Upper Brittany (1880), a well-received collection and the first in a long series of related publications such as Traditions and Superstitions of Upper Brittany (1882) and Christian Legends of Upper Brittany (1885). Sébillot’s importance as a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer was cemented by his monumental Folklore of France (1904-7).

Elvire de Preissac, comtesse de Cerny, hailed as the doyenne of French folklore by Sébillot, was one of the first women to collect and publish stories gathered from both Upper and Lower Brittany. Her excellent Saint-Suliac and its Traditions (1861) was one of the first ethnographical works to focus, in depth, on one narrow specific region. Having abandoned her writing during her period of marriage, her most famous work, Tales and Legends of Brittany, was published posthumously in 1899.

For a number of reasons, popular interest in the old Breton tales and legends waned markedly in France and Brittany for much of the last century. However, new collections of folk tales continued to be published in the years prior to WW1 but appetites faded further during the period between the two world wars. In addition to changing tastes, a rather contemptuous attitude from Paris towards Brittany and its language on the one hand and a resistance from the populist Breton movement, who viewed the emphasis on old rural folklore and traditions as perpetuators of an outdated image of Brittany, on the other, being significant contributors.

One of the last collectors of folk tales from the Breton oral tradition was Jean Le Page who published in Breton journals under the pseudonym Yann ar Floc’h until his death in 1936; his tales were subsequently compiled and published as Tales from Ster Aon (a region in central Brittany) in 1950. The similarly named Iwan ar Floc’h, a weaver from Carhaix, who knew and could recite some sixty local folk tales, was plucked from obscurity in the early 1980s as ethnographers learned of his tales from Jean Rolland, a man then living in a rest home in central Brittany who recalled clearly the tales told by ar Floc’h before his death in 1925. Iwan ar Floc’h is said to have explained the origins of his collection of Breton tales thus:

“According to the ancients, all these [Breton] tales had been invented by a woman who had married a man who did not want to have a child and had told her that if she expected one, he would kill him. When she realized that she was pregnant, she said to herself ‘I am going to tell him a long story, a little bit each night so that he wants to know the rest and no longer thinks about the child’. In due course, the child was born before the story was completed but the man found his son so beautiful that he no longer wanted to kill him.”

While the parallel to A Thousand and One Nights is clear, it is less clear how and when that collection of stories came into the orbit of a Breton speaking weaver but the absorption and metamorphosis of stories across regions and even continents is quite common, sometimes with little substantive changes to the main characters or locations. Despite its transfer from one area to another, the story remains similar to itself and this can cause problems for the folklorist.

A difficulty highlighted by Paul Delarue in his The French Folk Tale (1957), an unfinished catalogue of folk tales from across the Francophone world, Delarue questions whether many of the tales he has recorded are the original tales that inspired Perrault or are modified versions of Perrault’s. This shows the profound influence of Perrault’s tales on folklore: it is now almost impossible to determine which tales are the original ones and which are Perrault’s own. For instance, the tale of The Sleeping Beauty is now widely considered part of folklore but it was originally a literary tale and, through Perrault and the Grimms, it became part of popular tradition.

Luzel wrote, in 1887: “I was the first to give exact and perfectly authentic versions of our tales; I have searched a lot and found a lot; but there will still remain, after me, many interesting discoveries to be made on the subject, and I can only engage and encourage the young Breton folklorists to try the test by assuring them that their pain will not be lost.”  Luzel felt compelled to write this as, at that time, many thought that there were no new discoveries to be made in mining the rich vein of folklore that runs deep through Brittany and he was proved right. Who knows, despite the intervening years and the demise of popular storytelling there may still be the occasional nugget to be found that is not a fashionable meme or prefaced with a hashtag.

a Breton storyteller

Cheese and Wine of Brittany

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.

cheese from Brittany

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.

Breton cheese

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.

wine growing 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.

Brittany wines

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!

Bed and Breakfast in Brittany

If you were looking for a guide to the best Bed and Breakfast establishments in beautiful Brittany, I am afraid to say that this is not it. Instead, today’s post offers a little look at the unique beds and breakfasts that were once commonplace throughout much of rural Brittany until around the time between the two world wars.

a Breton cottage interior
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The main item of furniture in the rural houses and farms of Brittany was once the closed bed, known as the lit clos in French and the gwele kloz in Breton. Made from local oak or sometimes chestnut, these closed beds were, more often than not, intricately carved and well decorated; making them statement pieces and a source of pride for the householder. Often, the bed and associated storage chest would form part of the wife’s dowry upon marriage.

For all intents and purposes, the closed bed was a multi-function piece of practical furniture that combined the functions of bed, wardrobe/cupboard, storage chest and seating bench and was usually the principal item of furniture in a rural dwelling. 

closed bed and fireplace
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As you can see from the illustrations, the closed bed was essentially a small double bed on a raised platform, surrounded on all sides by wooden enclosing walls. Access to this sleeping chamber was afforded by an opening on one of the two main sides which was covered by either one or two sliding doors, a regular hinged door opening laterally or simply a pair of curtains. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) described it thus :

“On one side of the ample fire-place was the invariable box bedstead. This is ‘de rigueur’ in a Breton cottage. On the side of the fire-place farthest from the door there invariably stands a huge dark oaken piece of furniture, which would have the exact appearance of a clothes-press, were it not that in the side next the fire there is a square aperture, which discloses a pile of mattresses reaching nearly to the top of the machine. This is the bed of the master and mistress.

Very frequently a similar box on the opposite side, but exhibiting a less monstrous pile of bedding, is the resting-place of the maid, or of any other member of the family.

The aperture, which is left as the sole means of access to the interior of this retreat, is furnished with sliding doors, generally—as well, indeed, as the whole of the front of the bed— handsomely carved. So that the occupant may, if he so please, entirely shut himself in.

This is termed a ‘lit clos’, for which I should think ‘a close bed’ must be a very appropriate translation. Indeed it is marvellous how the owner of a handsomely furnished ‘lit clos’ can breathe in it, or even get into it at all, so great a proportion of the enclosed space is occupied by mattresses and beds, piled one on another.

… In front of this bedstead is seen, almost as invariably as itself, a large oaken chest, the same length as the bed, about twenty inches high and as much broad. This is always the seat of honour and serves also as a step to assist mine hostess in mounting to her exalted couch.”

Decoration and ornamentation were mainly reserved for the sliding panels of the bed with the main decorative features being intricate rosettes on cartwheels formed from carved wooden spindles, often in galleries. Sometimes, brass or copper nails were hammered along the edges of the panels or were arranged to form inscriptions such as the names and the date of marriage of the owners.

Some have suggested – rather fancifully – that the closed bed was born from a need to protect the occupants of the house from predatory animals such as wolves or as protection from the animals that typically shared the domestic living space; neither explanation really holds much water.

The rural dwellings of yesterday’s Brittany usually consisted of just one or two rooms, housing the entire household, and so the closed bed allowed a little privacy and helped keep the occupants warm during the colder months. The beds were either arranged in a row against the side walls near the open hearth or immediately against the wall of the back of the fireplace; this room (where it existed) was known as ‘the room at the end’ and was thus completely separate from the cows and chickens that usually shared the room containing the main fireplace.

The bed was raised in order to avoid the unhealthy dampness of the compacted earth or clay floor which was then common; a linen storage chest of the same length served not only as a bench but also as a step to access the top tier bed. Typically, the beds measured as wide as 1.7m (about five foot, seven inches) inside; a tight fit even allowing for the size of the Bretons of yesteryear! The beds could be on two levels; if this was the case, the children or young people slept on the upper tier.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounts, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars, (The Horse of Pride, 1975), that he himself was born in a closed bed in 1914 and that those who possessed such a bed took a great deal of pride from them:

That box-bed was .. a double-decker crate in which my father and his brothers – all four of them – had slept until they left home. But during family reunions I myself had slept in it with three others. ..The enormous crate would creak all over every time anyone turned in it. You’d also hear the straw crackling and the bales of oats rustling. ..One time the two uncles on top deliberately rammed their backs against the straw mattresses, threatening to make the whole top collapse onto the two occupants below (one of whom happened to be me), who in turn banged their fists up against the boards to make them keep still. I was a bit frightened when it creaked too much but the crate was strong, so on we’d go!

The importance of the bed was not dimmed by the death of its owner, Hélias notes that, after a death : “The bed was fixed-up for the lying in state. If it was a box-bed, sheets and cloths were hung on the inside of the enclosures, or if not, on the walls around it. It had become what we call a ‘white chapel’.

The closed beds of Brittany fell out of use gradually but were effectively abandoned in the years between the two world wars of the last century. You do not need to visit any of the local museums to see examples of this furniture in Brittany as you will regularly see them for sale in brocantes (second hand shops that usually also sell an assortment of antiques) for about a hundred Euro. Some are still set-up as intended but many have long-since been converted into bookcases or A/V units.

So much for the bed, what of breakfast? Traditional Breton cooking was, and remains, simple and wholesome and most rural dwellers began their day with either a wheat gruel or a humble pancake cooked on a hot plate or skillet over the cottage’s open fire. Typically, these would be cooked in batches once a week rather than each day. Usually made with buckwheat flour, known as sarassin in French, these thick pancakes known as crêpes or galettes (depending on which part of Brittany you were from) were either eaten with butter or stuffed with cooked eggs, or slices of pork sausage or sometimes just some baked apples.

Contrary to what the name implies, buckwheat is not part of the wheat family but of the sorrel family; flowering plants cultivated in Brittany since the 12th century, producing seeds rich in proteins and minerals. Nowadays, the designation crêpe is often applied to sweet-filled pancakes made with white flour while galette is applied to heavier, buckwheat-made savoury filled pancakes. In times past, the distinction was also noted that the former were made with milk and butter, while the latter were made using only water.

crepes from Brittany
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Although a feature seemingly born in medieval Brittany, the closed bed was also found in parts of western Great Britain particularly Wales and similar bed furniture is known in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. As for the breakfast pancake; crêpes have long since moved from the rustic Breton kitchen, becoming a staple and tasty fixture across France and indeed, the world!

Bread and Butter in Brittany

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.

fresh bread Brittany
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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.

baguettes from Brittany
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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.

bread shop in france
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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.

breton salted butter
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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.

flavoured butter from Brittany
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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!

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

Leaving behind home, loved ones and all that was familiar; undertaking a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a serious and often costly affair. It could take several years out of one’s life and involved facing considerable risk while travelling across distant lands; bad weather, wild beasts and brigands accounting for countless ill-prepared or overwhelmed pilgrims over the centuries.

Typically, before embarking on a distant pilgrimage, a pilgrim was required to settle their affairs which involved the payment of all outstanding debts, seeking and granting forgiveness for past wrongdoings and making a solemn vow to complete their journey. Most pilgrimages were undertaken out of religious devotion or to petition for special favours and gather indulgences; pilgrimage as expiation of sins or as an act of anticipatory penance being a key motivator. Sometimes, a pilgrimage was ordered as a public act of penance; the sinner often bound to walk barefoot or even naked, rarely spending more than one night in a particular place and having to beg for food along the way.

Procession Brittany
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Pilgrimages can be defined as journeys to holy places such as shrines, undertaken as labours of love for the Divine and spiritual quests for grace. For Christians, this sometimes involved the long, difficult voyage to the Holy Land but other sites of significance such as churches containing the relics of saints were also places of pilgrimage for the pious. Amongst the most notable were the churches of the apostles St Peter and St Paul in Rome, the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral, the relics of the Magi of Bethlehem at Cologne cathedral and the shrine of the apostle St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Sometimes, the pilgrimage was undertaken to earn indulgences for the dead and not necessarily by a loved one; pilgrimage by proxy was not uncommon and one professional pilgrim in late 19th century Brittany was noted to have carried out at least 64 pilgrimages on behalf of other people.

Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape Purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in Purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.

Pilgrim routes in Brittany
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Brittany was an important stage on the journey to Compostela for medieval pilgrims travelling from Ireland and western parts of Great Britain. As you can see in the map above, the main starting points for the Camino de Santiago are near to some of the key ports on the Atlantic and Channel coasts. After disembarking, pilgrims are faced with a further journey of 2,000km (1,250 miles) to Compostela. For an idea of scale, the distance covered by the pilgrim trail illustrated from La Pointe Saint-Mathieu to Clisson is over 500km (325 miles).

One of the starting points for the camino on Brittany’s west Atlantic coast is the former abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu. This was built over the remains of a 6th century monastery which was once said to hold the relics of Saint Matthew but accounts differ markedly as to how and when parts were moved to southern Italy. Stripped-out after the French Revolution, it is quite difficult to imagine now how significant the abbey and supporting town of some 40 streets once was; even as late as the end of the 16th century.

The former abbey of Beauport, on Brittany’s the north coast, is the departure point for another important camino route through Brittany. Founded in the mid-12th century, the abbey once held significant holdings in Lincolnshire. It was spared the ravages of war that often befell other sites, such as the abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu, but met the same fate during the French Revolution. Happily, the abbey buildings were not stripped of their stones and the ruins today remain quite substantial.

Most of the routes take you through open land on country lanes, canal tow-paths and graded bicycle trails. The terrain covered is fairly flat and affords the traveller a variety of landscapes predominantly rural in aspect, passing through villages and small towns and crossing just a few historic cities. The Association Bretonne des Amis de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle can provide practical guidebooks for the various routes that traverse Brittany.

Several routes merge at Redon, a small town on the confluence of the Vilaine and Oust rivers, where pilgrims traditionally converged before moving onto Nantes and beginning the long journey south to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and into Spain.

Another long-distance pilgrimage trail in Brittany is that of the Tro Breizh (Breton for through or tour of Brittany) or the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints; a journey of over 600km (375 miles) connecting the cathedrals and relics of the founders of the first seven bishoprics of Brittany. These early bishoprics are closely linked to the first Christian evangelists who arrived from Celtic Britain in the sixth century and are considered together as the Seven Founding Saints, namely: 

Saint Pol whose shrine is at Saint-Pol-de-Léon; Saint Tudwal’s shrine is at Tréguier; Saint Brioc whose principal shrine is at Saint-Brieuc; Saint Malo at the town bearing his name; Saint Samson whose shrine is at Dol-de-Bretagne; Saint Padarn at Vannes and Saint Corentin whose shrine is at Quimper.

Tro Breizh
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In medieval times this journey was expected to be carried out once in a lifetime to ensure entry into Heaven and a Breton legend tells us that whoever does not make the Tro Breizh at least once in their lifetime will be condemned to complete it after death but by advancing only the length of a coffin every seven years.

There is some debate about the age and importance of this pilgrimage in medieval times; some scholars trace the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints back to the time of King Nomenoë who, through a series of political, religious and military actions, split the Breton Church away from the ecclesiastical province of Tours in the 9th century. Other historians argue that the collective cult of the Seven Saints probably dates from the end of the 10th century. The first documented reference to this pilgrimage is found in the canonization inquiry for Saint Yves in 1330.

The Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints was traditionally completed in one journey which typically took a month to complete. Pilgrims walked from one saint’s shrine to another, essentially making a circuitous pilgrimage through the heart of Breton Brittany, passing neither of the big cities of Rennes or Nantes. There is no final destination or order to respect – you can start and stop anywhere – although it was once the custom to follow the course of the sun.

Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints Brittany
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In the modern era, not many people can devote an entire month to a pilgrimage and so, in 1994, when the pilgrimage was officially re-launched with the full support of the Vatican, it was suggested by the association Les Chemins du Tro Breiz, that it be limited to one week annually and thus completed over the course of seven years. Each summer, the association organises a walk of one stage of the Tro Breizh covering about 150km (90 miles) over the course of a week. Additionally, the association handles the Tremen-Hent, a pilgrims’ passport or credential, whose completion is necessary in order to apply for the Certificate of Pilgrimage. These organised pilgrimages attract over two thousand participants each year; a combination of devout pilgrims and casual hikers.

According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to complete at least once during their lifetime. The first was to the troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead and deviated, even slightly, from the route supposedly taken by Saint Ronan. The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais; if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day. The final obligatory pilgrimage was to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat in Bulat-Pestivien.

Participation in the extended processions of two other Pardons were also widely regarded as obligatory pilgrimages: that of Notre-Dame du Yaudet near Lannion and the troménie known as ‘the tour of the relics’ in Landeleau. It was said that whoever failed to accomplish the pilgrimage to Yaudet was condemned to go there three times after death, while those who missed ‘the tour of the relics’ were condemned to undertake this troménie after death, carrying their coffin but advancing only its length each day.

Pilgrimage in Brittany
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It was believed that announcing one’s intention to undertake a pilgrimage constituted a sacred vow; if you had died before fulfilling your vow, you would honour your obligation in death. However, the dead were said to have been unable to go on a pilgrimage alone; they needed to be accompanied by at least one living person. This was why, sometimes, those performing their pilgrimages often heard, without seeing anything, a rustling in the hedgerows or the sounds of footsteps upon the path; the souls of the dead fulfilling their vows of pilgrimage.

In Brittany, most pilgrimages commenced, with prayers, from the steps of a calvary. This was not necessarily one associated with the local church or even one dedicated to the particular saint being invoked by the pilgrimage; the nearest roadside calvary was thought sufficient. However, if the pilgrimage was being undertaken in order to intercede for the soul of a dead loved one, the journey began with prayers at the grave of the deceased.

It is possible to follow the established pilgrimage routes, in whole or in part, at any time of the year. The routes are mostly marked and will lead you, via the most beautiful cathedrals in Brittany, to historic chapels, sacred fountains, remarkable calvaries and across wonderful and varied landscapes. Whether hiked or biked, travelling even a part of the old pilgrimage routes, affords a special opportunity to connect with the past and to discover today’s Brittany in peace.

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

In a land rich in legend, myth and fable, the phantom washerwomen of the night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate and unwary souls in the darkness.

Across the length and breadth of rural Brittany, there are many tales that feature the washerwomen of the night (known as kannerezed noz in Breton or lavandières de la nuit in French) and there are often quite marked differences in the, sometimes contradictory, characteristics attributed to them.

All accounts agree that the washerwomen – there are usually three of them, all tall and unnaturally strong – are condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for past misdeeds. Sometimes the washerwomen are the spirits of women once known in the locality, at other times, anonymous ghosts. Depending on the tale, they work noisily in silence or sing loudly, stopping only to address a passer-by, often by name, to ask for help in wringing out the washing. Although the women toil every night, some tales say that they can only be seen during the nights of the full moon or just on the night before All Hallows’ Day.

Phantom Washerwomen of the night
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The washerwomen of the night mainly appear only to men, particularly the drunkards who meander their way home from the tavern at night following the path which runs alongside the river or past the wash-house. If an unwary man stops to help these washerwomen wring their sheets, they are inevitably found in the morning with broken bones and enveloped in this white shroud.

Anne Plumptre (Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1810) relating some superstitions prevalent in Brittany during her stay, recounted that:

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez noz, the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always at night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the refusers into the stream and drown them.”

Rural washing points and communal wash-houses, known as lavoirs in France, were, of necessity, sited near a river or spring at the periphery of a village, sometimes at quite a distance from the nearest house. The lavoir was an important part of women’s lives and carried a significant social function; a woman-only domain, each with its own traditions and hierarchy. For instance, the spot nearest the captured water source was customarily reserved for the oldest washerwoman.

Washerwomen in Brittany
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Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975) recounts in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars: “For the women, the big wash was a chore of great importance. Like all the really serious jobs, it lasted for three days, which corresponded to Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, in that order.” Soaking and drying were usually done at home but the hard tasks of scrubbing, paddling, rinsing and wringing took place in the communal lavoir.

Most of the structures that remain today were built between the 17th and early 20th centuries although some are hundreds of years older. With the coming of piped mains water and drainage, the lavoirs gradually fell into disuse in the 1960s but the structures remain a familiar sight throughout rural Brittany today.

an abandoned wash house in Brittany
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In some tales the washerwomen of the night are harbingers of death as the time and manner of one’s death is always known to the washerwomen, others imbue them with the power to grant wishes but only to those who answer the three questions they pose truthfully. If a question is answered dishonestly, the washerwomen will know and violently strangle the liar with their wet sheets.

Most commonly, the phantom washerwomen are held to be the spirits of women expiating at night, the sins committed during their lifetime.  Such sins seem to vary by locality and encompass a very broad range of socio-religious transgressions; from working at night or during the sacred days of rest to murdering children.

Walter Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911) quotes a description of the washerwomen given to him by Goulven Le Scour:

The lavandières de nuits were heard less often than the korrigans but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.”

In many accounts from Lower Brittany, they are the ghosts of women who were once washerwomen who skimped on cleaning agents and instead used rough stones to scrape clean the laundry in their charge, damaging the clothes and linen of those who mostly had little enough to spare. To punish them for their greed, they were sentenced to eternally wash clothes that remain forever dirty.

the washer-women of the night
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Some versions of the old tales say that the washerwomen of the night were the souls of washerwomen who had contravened the religious precepts surrounding Sunday rest, an observance that was followed quite strongly in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; as a result they were sentenced to work for eternity. Such prohibitions against working also applied to Childermas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day; defying these prohibitions was said to bring death upon oneself within the year.

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. The 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that, in some tales of the phantom washerwomen, the laundry that they presented to passers-by, sometimes contained the body of a screaming, bleeding newborn baby. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858), they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, and she described them thus:

The real washerwomen are the souls of infanticide mothers. They incessantly beat and twist something that looks like wet linen but which, when seen closely, is nothing but a child’s corpse. Each has their own, if she has been a criminal several times. We must beware of observing or disturbing them; for, even if you were six feet tall with muscles in proportion, they would seize you, beat you in the water and twist you no more and no less than a pair of stockings.

Breton Banshee
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While some stories identify the washerwomen of the night with the souls of the dead who were buried in a dirty shroud, others claim that they are in fact the spirits of widows who had buried their husbands in a filthy shroud; consigned to wash these shrouds until the appearance of a Christian saviour. It was sometimes believed the washerwomen were souls trapped in Purgatory undergoing penance for having wilfully brought on an abortion by their work or for having strangled their own baby and it is interesting to note that the belief that the washerwomen had no power over mothers with young children was quite widespread.

Muttering a prayer and making the sign of the cross were said to offer protection for those people that ventured abroad at night and happened across the washerwomen. Ignoring them, even if one was the tormented spirit of a close relative, was sometimes not enough to avoid their deathly clutches; they were known to give chase but were unable to do so over freshly ploughed fields.

The origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night are lost to us but we should guard against immediately jumping to the assumption that they were merely Christian homilies about the need to respect the Holy Days, being dutiful to one’s family or not staying overlong in a tavern et cetera. In some tales, the washerwomen serve as both a warning and a lament but other tales are simply spooky fireside stories, perhaps first told to explain the unfamiliar nocturnal noises carried on the wind.

The concept of ghostly night-women exists in other parts of France as well as in the old folklore of many Celtic nations. Whatever their genesis, they are perchance another reflection of water’s timeless association with the mystical.

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