Brittany has long been one of the jewels in France’s crown. Its beaches and holiday homes are flooded each summer by Parisians on their grandes vacances and Brits piling off cross-channel ferries. It’s easy to see why. From the rugged beauty of the northern coast to the classy beach resorts, there’s no arguing that this independently minded region is among France’s most beautiful.
But there’s more to Brittany than the campsite and coast trail. This is also one of France’s finest regions for food lovers. Come slightly out of season and you’ll find that not only can you get the windswept sands all to yourself, there’s also a veritable array of culinary delights to get stuck into.
There are world-famous oysters to slurp as you shelter your wind-whipped skin in blustery little Cancale, salted caramels to roll over your tongue as you stroll the walls of St-Malo and the second-largest food market in France to browse in the capital, Rennes. There are Michelin-starred restaurants that fuse French classics with Asian influences and South American spices, and of course, there are Breton galettes and bolées of cider at every turn.
It’s a paradise for seafood lovers
Brittany partly has the tides to thank for the abundance of seafood. The tidal range here is one of the highest in Europe. This makes the coastline perfectly suited to farming both common rock oysters (huîtres creuses) and the native flat oysters (huîtres plates), which thrive in the waters of the Baie du Mont St-Michel.
To taste them, there’s only one place to go, the undisputed oyster capital and “one-mollusc town” of Cancale. The oyster beds here stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. Oysters are shucked so frequently by seafront stalls that a mountain of shells threatens to breach the sea wall like a high tide.
Spend a few hours in one of the unpretentious seafood restaurants and you’ll soon find yourself slurping down a cool half-dozen huîtres, grappling with little brown shrimp, prying the sweet meat from lobsters’ claws and getting skilled with a toothpick as you pluck little black sea snails from their shells.
If you want to be resolutely Breton, a mug (bolée) of cider – the drier the better – is a good accompaniment. Better is a glass of frostily crisp Muscadet, made from Melon de Bourgogne in the neighbouring vineyards of Nantes. (Brittany’s historic capital becomes temporarily Breton once again as soon as oysters come into play.)
It’s the only place to settle the crêpe vs galette debate
Most visitors, however, arrive in Brittany with one thing on their mind: pancakes. Luckily there are a slew of places waiting to indulge your every batter-based fantasy – from vans selling galette-wrapped sausages smothered in mustard to little crêperies like the Crêperie du Port in Saint-Quay-Portrieux that offer cookery lessons to visitors.
Traditionally, galettes and crêpes are eaten in the same meal. Savoury buckwheat-flour galettes come first, topped with combinations like ham, egg and cheese (the “complete”). White-flour crêpes are served for dessert. Forget about nutella, if you want to embrace all things Breton, you need to drizzle your pancake with salted butter caramel sauce.
à la bretonne! by Jérôme Decq via Flickr (CC license)
It’s the original home of salted caramel
The creation of salted butter caramel (caramel beurre salé) stems back to the 1500s, when Brittany was the only part of France to be exempt from a salt tax known as the gabelle. As such, salt was liberally sprinkled in the local cuisine – a tradition that remains evident in Brittany’s famous salted butter today.
It’s thought the next step came about in the 1970s when an ingenious pâtissier decided to use salted butter to make caramel. A beautiful union was born, and today you’ll find salted caramel in everything from sauces to hard sweets.
It’s a great place to hit the market
Away from the coast, one of the other joys of Brittany is shopping in the local markets. One of the best is in the capital, Rennes, where the second-largest market second in France (after Lille) sprawls through the centre of the small city.
Trestle tables groan with local produce throughout the year. The likes of rhubarb, asparagus and scallops in spring; artichokes (around 70 percent of France’s artichokes are grown here), currants and bundles of herbs in summer; apples, rabbit and mushrooms in autumn; and cabbages, potatoes and carrots in winter.
Its Michelin-starred restaurants are refreshingly inventive
In the kitchen of the nearby restaurant La Coquerie, meanwhile, the focus shifts east. A long way east. Rennes is twinned with Sendai in Japan, and this connection is echoed in Julien Lemarié’s classy fusion menu. He uses local Breton produce in recipes inspired by his time in Tokyo and Singapore – from slow-cooked egg with star anise, confit lime and nori to oysters in a wasabi-spiked broth.
Surprising pairings also crop up elsewhere; Brittany is no place for traditionalists. Celebrated local chef Olivier Roellinger might have closed his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Relais Gourmand, but his influence remains in a hotel, a spice shop, Epices Roellinger, and a cookery school, the Ecole de Cuisine Corsaire run by Emmanuel Tessier.
Roellinger’s unusual philosophy is based around the use of exotic spices – once bought to Brittany’s ports by corsairs – to enliven classic recipes. One of his most famous creations is homard Xérès et cacao: lobster spiced with Amazonian annatto seeds, Indian coriander, cacao, sherry vinegar and a hint of vanilla.
It’s the perfect place to overindulge
If this is starting to sound like a bit too much, don’t worry: Brittany does down-time well. Thanks to a law that new houses can be built no closer than 50m from coastline, rocky coves and deserted strands abound.
And if a sea breeze isn’t enough to blow away the cobwebs, you can even indulge in a weird and wonderful array of salt-water-based spa treatments at the Spa Marin du Val André.
To be honest, though, a crepe with lashings of salted butter caramel is much more restorative.
Discover more about the region on www.brittanytourism.com, a one-stop resource for all things Breton. Explore more with the Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Header credit:Ramen/photocuisine/Corbis. All photos in this feature copyright Eleanor Aldridge unless otherwise stated.