With its long and varied coastline, from expansive beaches to windswept rocky shores, it’s hardly surprising seafood looms large in Brittany’s restaurants, says Claire Vaughan. But what other foodie treats does it have to offer?
Didn’t someone once say “life’s a beach”? Brittany has plenty of glorious sandy stretches, with an impressive 2,800km of coastline to its name. And with the thousands of British tourists making a beeline for the region each year, it’s obviously doing something right. But what does Brittany mean to you? Perhaps you love its history (it has 2,900 historic monuments – second only to Paris), or maybe the stylish Breton stripe made famous by Coco Chanel and Brigitte Bardot? Or does your heart skip a beat at the thought of a cheese-and-ham galette bretonne (pancake) washed down with local cidre?
For the gastronome on tour, however, Brittany has more than pancakes to offer. It has produced many Michelin-starred chefs and what it lacks in the way of regional wines and cheeses, it more than makes up for on the seafood front. So napkins out and lobster crackers at the ready, it’s time to see what Brittany has on the menu.
Covering an area of more than 34,000 km2, with the English Channel to the north and the wild Atlantic to the west, the north-westernmost corner of France consists of four départements : rugged Finistère; Côtes-d’Armor, with its stunning beaches and pink granite coastline; Morbihan to the south; and Ille-et-Vilaine stretching from Saint-Malo on the north coast down to Redon.
Many Brits land here if travelling to France by ferry via the ports of Saint-Malo or Roscoff – lots keep on driving to other regions, but those in the know will hunt out a pretty fishing village or characterful spot inland as a base from which to savour Brittany’s uniqueness and gastronomic delights.
But before we start our culinary tour, let’s clear one thing up. A galette is a buckwheat or blé noir pancake filled with savoury goodies – generally ham, cheese and egg (this is known as a galette complète ). A crêpe is the sweet version of this regional favourite eaten either nature (unadorned), or with sugar and lemon, or (and this is how I like them best) with lashings of chocolate spread.
The traditional accompaniment to this feast is cider drunk in bolées rather than glasses. Every town and village will have at least one crêperie for you to get your fix. Bon appétit!
Bounty of the Sea
With its long, shimmering coastline stretching from the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel round to La Roche-Bernard, the sea’s influence on Brittany’s cuisine (as well as culture and style) is undeniable. Fruits de mer, in its various forms, tops the menu at the hundreds of eateries in the towns and villages dotting Brittany’s coast. At his two-starred restaurant at the Hôtel de Carantec, Finistère, chef Patrick Jeffroy highlights the relationship between food and the sea: “The abalone, the langoustine – it is wonderful what the sea gives us here. The haricot de mer , the seaweed…”
All along the Breton coast, the sea provides a bounty for food-lovers – from crabs and lobsters to langoustines and monkfish. The Baie de Saint-Brieuc is the place to come if you like scallops (the ‘queen of the sea’). Paimpol, at its western tip, is home of the local scallop fishing industry.
Saint-Brieuc also has two Michelin-starred restaurants – La Vieille Tour and Aux Pesked – and was awarded the European Destination of Excellence in Gastronomy in 2015, so make room for it on your itinerary. If oysters are your thing, head to Cancale, where they are grown in great ‘parks’. Go and see the oyster farmers at work at the family-run La Ferme Marine.
Buy a dozen from the stalls of the marché aux huîtres clustered around the Pointe des Crolles lighthouse and slurp them en plein air with a squeeze of lemon to the sound of the waves gently lapping. Or sit and eat them in style at one of the town’s many restaurants including Le Coquillage, owned by top chef and Cancale native Olivier Roellinger.
He famously closed his three-Michelin starred Le Relais Gourmand here in 2008, but now has a new restaurant, gîte, shop and hotel in the town. His take on Breton cuisine is as honest as the food. “There is no real culinary culture in Brittany,” he says. “It is food for working – lamb, potatoes, pork grease. And Celtic people did not like the food of the sea because many of their men died fishing. It is new for us to cook with the sea.”
There are many fish markets on Brittany’s coast, but Lorient’s Halles de Merville is by far the biggest (it’s the second largest in the country, with 25,000 tons of fish passing through it each year). The fish sold here find their way onto plates across Europe. Catch of the day is predominantly hake, monkfish and langoustines, but there are sometimes welcome surprises. Prices are competitive and you’ll find yourself jostling with restaurateurs and market traders.
And, it goes without saying, the menus of nearby restaurants are swimming with sparklingly fresh fish dishes: try Le Crabe Marteau and the Michelin-starred L’Amphitryon. Hunt out local speciality cotriade , a traditional fish stew cooked with potatoes like a chowder, while you’re here.
A pretty granite town and harbour, Roscoff is known for its seafood, but was also the home port of the beretwearing ‘Onion Johnnies’, the French onion sellers who would cross the Channel with their bicycles and strings of Roscoff’s smooth, sweet-tasting pink onions. La Maison des Johnnies et de l’Oignon de Roscoff, a quaint little museum in the town, is dedicated to these sellers.
Soak up the atmosphere in Chez Janie in the town’s old harbour, now a three-star hotel and restaurant, but once a haunt of the ‘Onion Johnnies’. This area is also known for its glorious floral honey. Head west from Roscoff to Plouescat and the Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes to stock up on the sweet stuff, plus Chouchen (honey wine).
Rennes, administrative capital of Brittany, is a big focus for food lovers. Local culinary journalist Olivier Marie says: “Across Brittany there is an incredible dynamism and broad variety. Rennes has an outstanding range of restaurants.”
It caters for all, with several Michelin-starred eateries (including Le Saison and Ima, which gained its star earlier this year); trendy, low-key places to eat with homemade fare and friendly vibes, including La Kitchenette and Les Bricoles; and cool terraces to enjoy a café au lait and spot of people-watching.
While he’s a big fan of the master chefs, he also has a soft spot for the local delicacy, the sausage galette . “It’s the combination of what people have always eaten here – pork and crêpe – simple, cheap and famous.”
As Olivier Roellinger points out, Breton cuisine is characterised by hearty, workers’ food – enter kig ha farz, a concoction of meat simmered in a broth with a buckwheat flour-based pudding. Brittany is a big producer of pork. Look out for andouille de Guémené , a sausage made from pork meat, chitterlings, pepper, onions and wine – served hot or cold. In Brocéliande, during the hunting season, you can eat your fill of wild game, while Rennes is home to the tasty coucou, a cereal-fed domestic hen.
In the Fougères area, you can buy Sougéal goose. Try it in a daube (casserole) – delicious!
Brittany is strangely bereft of local cheeses, although one producer keeps the flag flying: Fromagerie Darley in Ruca, Côtes-d’Armor, is worth making a detour for. Brittany is, instead, famous for its butter, and its delectable Breton pastries – packed with the stuff – are heavenly. Try kouign-amann (pronounced ‘queen amann’). Then there’s the classic prune-studded ‘cake’ far breton , made from a crêpe-like batter.
Make sure you try melt-in-the-mouth sablés bretons biscuits, and the more delicate galettes de Pont-Aven. The Biscuiterie de Quimper (www.biscuiteriedequimper.com) stocks Breton cakes and biscuits galore – just save enough room in your suitcase to take a couple of boxes home.
It’s also a little-known fact that the ubiquitous salted caramel (caramel au beurre salé) was born in Brittany – some say in the 1970s when a pâtissier used the local salted butter to make caramel.
Surprisingly for a French region, Brittany (like Normandy) has no wine producers to speak of; although there are ongoing efforts to reinstate vineyards in the village of Saint-Suliac near Saint-Malo. And as with its next-door neighbour, instead of vines, here you’ll see miles of orchards. Cider is the drink of choice and it finds its way into many of Brittany’s other beverages. There’s the Kir Breton (like a regular Kir except that cider is added to the Crème de Cassis, rather than white wine or champagne); you’ll also find cidre blanc and cidre rosé – slightly sweeter, stronger takes on cider drunk as an aperitif. Apple brandy is popular too, as is Pommeau de Bretagne or apple brandy cider.
First to Market
While fish markets dominate the coast, inland you will find some of the biggest and best marchés packed with glorious fresh produce from across Brittany. The Marché des Lices in Rennes has been going for four centuries and is the second-biggest in France, while Questembert’s market is a very traditional affair, held in creaking 16th-century halls.
With all this wonderful produce, it’s hardly surprising that several of Paris’s top chefs hail from Brittany: Alain Passard, owner of the three-star restaurant L’Arpège; and father-and-son team Bernard and Mathieu Pacaud at the three-starred L’Ambroisie; while at Chez Michel, Thierry Breton has created a gastronomic homage to his native Brittany.
But, of course, this region boasts a clutch of its own Michelin-starred restaurants; from L’Auberge des Glazicks in Plomodiern, Finistère to the wonderfully atmospheric Le Moulin de Rosmadec in Pont-Aven and Allium in Quimper.
The French excel at honouring their food and this region is no exception. Each July, Gourin in the département of Morbihan hosts its scrummy Fête de la Crêpe, celebrating Brittany’s most famous dish with traditional music, singing and games – and a contest to see who can make the largest pancake.
If you love scallops, don’t miss the Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques in Paimpol in April. The festivities mark the end of the scallop-fishing season and include fishing trips, music and oodles of scallops. If you love scallops, don’t miss the Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques in Paimpol in April. The festivities mark the end of the scallop-fishing season and include fishing trips, music and oodles of scallops.If you love scallops, don’t miss the Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques in Paimpol in April. The festivities mark the end of the scallop-fishing season and include fishing trips, music and oodles of scallops.
Want to get up close and personal with the local delicacies? Learn how to cook gourmet French food from a Michelin-starred chef on the five-day French Cooking Course run by the French Dining School in the village of Kerrouet. Why not visit Les Ateliers Crêpes de Véro in Bénodet, where you can learn everything from how to make the batter to garnishing your crêpe like a pro? Or spend half a day in pudding heaven at the École des Desserts, just outside Vannes in Morbihan? You’ll learn to craft wonderful desserts from Alain Chartier, who holds the prestigious title of the master craftsman of ice-cream making.
From top-notch seafood to buttery biscuits and cakes to some of France’s best Michelin-starred eateries, coastal, beach-tastic Brittany has something to float everyone’s boat.
CIDER The best places to find – and quaff – Brittany’s drink of choice
Cider production hasn’t always dominated Brittany. Many hundreds of years ago, monks cultivated the land and produced wine. However, a climate shift that brought the prevailing Atlantic winds, high rainfall and lack of sunlight meant that vines couldn’t grow properly. In the mid-17th century, Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert had any remaining vines replaced with orchards whose crops yielded the more lucrative cider.
Today the region accounts for over 40 per cent of France’s production of this full-bodied, rustic-flavoured nectar. Make sure you include a tasting tour on your trip.
The Cidrerie de la Baie cider farm in Planguenoual shares the secrets of how it makes its organic cider. At the end of your visit, you can enjoy a tasting session and even buy some. Or try the Distillerie des Menhirs in Plomelin, which produces both cider and whisky. Organic cider producer the Cidrerie Kerné, in Pouldreuzic, is also worth including in a day trip.
Since global warming has brought warmer weather, growers are tentatively reintroducing vines across the region – including Le Clos de Garot, a vineyard near Saint-Suliac. It has succeeded in producing a dry white wine similar to Anjou, though it hasn’t gone into large-scale production – yet.