Breton Food & Wine
Sardine festival in Plouhinec
Food lovers will be enticed by Brittany's magnificent array of seafood, especially oysters (huîtres), scallops (coquilles St-Jacques) and mussels (moules). Ste Hélène is known for its oyster farms, although some restaurants in the region serve its mussels as well.
In fact coastal fishing takes place all round the shores of Brittany, and each small harbour has its fishing boats. Fishing ports such as Concarneau, in the Morbihan, have boats specialising in crabs and lobsters, fished in the waters between the coast and the Glenan islands. Oyster beds are all along the coast. The fishermen of Brest, Morlaix and the big fishing ports take their ships many hundreds of miles from the Breton shores, to bring back an array of Atlantic and northern fish that can find their way into your plate near Ste Hélène; but in many places stock are becoming depleted, and strict quotas have left the Breton fishing fleets much smaller than they used to be.
Note that Brittany bases its cuisine around this wonderfully fresh seafood, and its delicious and omnipresent butter, which Bretons buy in the supermarket in great yellow blocks such as you have surely never seen before. There is sweet, but the Bretons prefer their butter seasoned with sea salt from their own coasts. The apples that go into producing the famous Breton cider tend to be present as well.
Popular shellfish include a range of mussels, winkles, scallops, oysters and other mouth-watering delicacies, which the restaurants can serve in a marvelous range of styles. If you are watching the budget you can still eat like royalty with a moules frites (mussels and chips). Moules marinières means they are steamed open in a combination of white wine, shallots and parsley; all that enriched by the addition of cream or crème fraiche becomes moules à la crème.
Another low-budget yet wonderful meal is to be found in the crêperies. The savory main course is the galette, prepared with brown buckwheat flour and filled with anything from scallops to sausage, spinach to bacon & eggs; the sweet dessert course is the crêpe, made with white flour and jammed full of jam, chocolate, fruit or other, and possibly flambéed with brandy or orange liqueur.
A bottle of chilled white at St Guillaume overlooking the oyster beds; the oysters will be served shortly
Paying a bit more in a restaurant – typically on menus costing €24 or more – brings you into the realm of the assiette de fruits de mer, a mountainous heap of langoustines, crabs, oysters, mussels, clams, whelks and cockles, most of them raw and all delicious. Other main courses tend to be simple, with fresh local fish being prepared with relatively simple sauces.
Brittany is also better than much of France in maintaining its respect for fresh green vegetables, thanks to the extensive local production of peas, cauliflowers, artichokes and the like. Supermarkets often have produce from the fellow up the road or in the next village.
Things can get a little heavy with dessert. Try a bit of far Breton, a baked concoction resembling a thick flan pie without the crust, studded with prunes and in its more sophisticated versions laced with brandy. Or if you are really throwing dietary caution to the winds, pick yourself up a Breton butter pastry, or kouign amann, at a bakery.
Strictly speaking, no wine is produced in Brittany itself. However, along the lower Loire valley, the département of Loire-Atlantique, centred on Nantes, is still generally regarded as "belonging" to Brittany. Vineyards here are responsible for the dry white Muscadet – which is what normally goes into moules marinières – and the even drier Gros-Plant.
You can't miss Breton cider. Apples are crushed to produce a naturally sparkling drink with a lower level of alcohol than the English version. Like all the other wines you will find you will have brut which is stronger and tastier, and doux cider, which is sweet and very low in alcohol. Demi-sec exists as well. Note that cider is usually served by the bolée, a ceramic cup or bowl.
Fresh crab at St Guillaume
You can also try chouchen, a wine made by fermenting honey with freshly pressed apple juice – this is nice chilled as a before-dinner drink, although Bretons scorn putting ice in it as it masks the honey flavour. Another name given to chouchen in certain parts of the region is "Breton hydromel".
Legend has it that just a couple of glasses of this drink makes you fall over - in fact early winemakers used to stir bees into it, the venom of which actually attacked the part of the drinker's brain governing balance. Not to worry, there are no bees in the wine today!
Last but not least, lambig is a spirit distilled from cider. This liqueur, which can sometimes reach 50º, is nice enjoyed after dinner.
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Finding the village of Sainte-Hélène-sur-Mer
- Deborah Mends
- An American of Welsh-English extraction, I've lived in France for almost thirty years, splitting my time today between Paris, Brittany and the Middle East. I am the owner of Atelier Mends SAS, which offers innovative drawing instruction online. Based on certain Old Master techniques and the latest research on how the mind learns, complete beginners can learn to draw realistically and sensitively; more experienced students will learn to develop their artist eye. Visit my English-language website at http://www.howtodrawjourney.com/, or, if you're a French speaker, check out http://www.le-chemin-du-dessin.com/. Interested in taking a drawing course during your stay at Kan ar Voualc'h? I offer one-day sketching jaunts to Pont Aven and to Auray: http://www.howtodrawjourney.com/drawing-classes.html