Bites of Brittany

This French province with a strong regional identity has Celtic traditions of food, music and language that make it unique.

The rugged rocky coast of Brittany at San Malo

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

No, it’s not Great Britain. It’s Brittany—a region in the far northwestern corner of France. It’s also the largest peninsula in France, with a 1,700-mile coastline bordering on the English Channel to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Bay of Biscay to the south. The westernmost part of Brittany juts so far into the sea that it’s even called “Finistere”—the end of the earth.

Typical Breton village house.

When I was a kid in the U.S., I was confused by that geographic name. How could something called “Brittany” be in France? Later I moved to Europe and began eating my way through all the regions of France, where I learned that the French term for this region is “Bretagne.” The Bretons living there call it “Breizh” in their own Celtic language, which is related to Irish and Welsh. And they have a strong regional identity that makes Brittany very different from other parts of France—in customs, traditions, costumes, music, language and cuisine.

Bretons on their way home from a bakery in the town of Quiberon.

The traditional cooking of Brittany is rustic, hardy, elemental. Fresh, local, sustainable ingredients have been the foundation of Breton cuisine for centuries, long before those terms became buzzwords on trendy urban menus. Surrounded by the sea on three sides, Brittany is also a region where fish, shellfish and crustaceans are daily fare.


Bretagne oysters
Fresh oysters (left) and whelks (right).

On my first trip to this part of France, I indulged in one of the glories of the Breton table, a plateau de fruits de mer—a huge serving platter heaped with fresh oysters, lobsters, clams, mussels, scallops, langoustines, prawns and periwinkles, all still in their shells and smelling of the sea. This massive meal for two was garnished simply with lemon slices and a bowl of mayonnaise (for dipping), along with slices of baguette and the best salted butter I’d ever tasted. A bottle of crisp white muscadet from the Loire-Atlantique wine region, which borders on Brittany, paired perfectly with the fine food. This classic seafood mélange is also a delightfully messy meal, eaten mostly with your fingers. But novice that I was, I had to watch the French couple at the next table to figure out how to use a straight pin (provided by the waitress) to pry out the flesh from those little periwinkles.

Cold seafood and potato salad at a fish market in Quiberon, Brittany.

Another notable seafood dish is cotriade, originally a humble fishermen’s stew made with potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks and the catch-of-the-day, all boiled up in a pot of salty water. Modern cooks are likely to throw in some herbs and white wine, too. Whatever the variety of ingredients that find their way into the stew pot, cotriade combines all the characteristics of Breton cooking—freshness, simplicity, nourishment—in one delicious dish. And if you aren’t in the mood for fish stew, then try the local moules marinières, mussels steamed in their shells over a bit of white wine, cider or beer. Or ask for a big bowl of moule frites, steamed mussels with a side dish of perfectly cooked French fries.

Brittany produce
Shopping at a large indoor food market in San Malo.

Crêpes and galettes are another favorite food in Brittany, sold at street stalls in every town, featured at festivals, and served in restaurants, some of which specialize in these big flat pancakes. Dainty crêpes are made from a thin batter of wheat flour, milk, and eggs, cooked on a large griddle. Usually sprinkled with sugar or slathered with jam, caramel spread, chocolate sauce or sweetened chestnut purée, the crêpes are then folded into quarters for serving. Galettes, which are slightly thicker, are made with a buckwheat-flour batter, cooked like crêpes on a griddle, and often garnished with sliced ham, fried eggs, shredded cheese, browned onions, or other savory ingredients. The classic drink with crêpes and galettes is a cup or ceramic bowl of cold Breton cider, the famous fermented apple juice of this region, in your choice of dry, semi-dry, or sweet.

Bretagne cider
Locally made hard cider is a popular drink.

Pork is a prime product in Brittany’s interior—cured into ham, stuffed into sausages—along with root vegetables grown on the rocky, windswept peninsula. Many of these go into the meat-and-vegetable stew known as kig ha farz (similar to French pot-au-feu), an old-fashioned rural dish. Buckwheat moistened with milk, meat bouillon, and lard is wrapped in a clean cloth and put into the pot to cook in the stew, to make a savory dumpling that’s later broken up with a fork and eaten with the meat, vegetables, and broth.

Nearer the sea, lambs that have grazed on the salt-marsh grasses are considered a delicacy, as are the artichokes, asparagus, strawberries and samphire that grow in the sandy soil. And along the coast, Brittany’s famous fleur de sel—mineral-rich, slightly gray, delicately flaky sea salt—is raked by hand off the top of shallow evaporation ponds flooded with sea water and left to dry in the sun and wind. Travelers to Brittany often return home with a big bag of fleur de sel purchased in one of the colorful open-air markets there.

Biscuit sign

The Bretons have a sweet tooth, too. In every town, shops are filled with pretty tin boxes holding rich butter cookies and creamy caramels made with Brittany’s renowned butter and sea salt. An old farmhouse dish, also sold in pastry shops and restaurants, is far Breton, a simple custardy tart, made with an eggy batter poured over sliced apples, plums, or liquor-soaked prunes or raisins, then baked in a hot oven. And a gateau Breton is another simple (but simply delicious) flat cake, halfway between a shortbread and a pound cake, made with a large proportion of butter and sometimes ground almonds or hazelnuts, too.

Breton sea salt cookies and sea salt
Crispy Breton cookies flavored with sea salt.

But the most famous Breton pastry is kouign-amann (pronounced queen-ah-MAHN), which just means “butter cake.” This classic Breton sweet is much like my great aunt’s irresistible cinnamon rolls—layers of yeast dough folded around plenty of butter, cinnamon and sugar, cut into large rounds, and pressed into muffin tins. But the Breton recipe differs from hers in leaving out the cinnamon, adding salt and going a step further to heavily butter and sugar those muffin tins. When the kouign-amann bakes, sugar syrup forms between the layers of dough, and a crunchy, chewy, caramelized shell forms on the outside. Tasting these warm, buttery, caramely rolls, fresh from the oven, is reason enough to travel to Brittany.

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