Things to See and Taste on the Coast of Brittany, France
After graduating from college, I decided to give my minor in French a run for its money and jet off to spend a year abroad in Rennes.
I chose Rennes specifically because I was intrigued by Brittany - France's most northwestern region - and the the "Breton" culture. As the local bretons would explain to me, whereas the the rest of France looks inward at itself and is very preoccupied with country affairs and Paris, Brittany is the wayward child who prefers to gaze outward to the sea.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, English settlers migrated over to what was then known as Armorica, and renamed it Brittany which literally means "little Britain." As early as the 19th century Brittany still had many speakers of Breton, a now nearly extinct Celtic English language similar to Welsh and Cornish.
In the following centuries, France and England fought over ownership of the region, with Bretons desperately wanting to remain independent. France finally confirmed ownership in the Middle Ages, but centuries later, there remains a definite Celtic edge to the Breton cuisine, art, dance, and music.
My two favorite things about Brittany were the impressive and romantic coast, and the food! The best was when the two could be enjoyed together, merged into a beach or cliffside picnic. Here are some snapshots of Breton desserts and coastal sights.
A Biscuiterie means "cookie place"! After all, it's only fair cookies have their own shop if breads get their "patisseries", and meats their "charcuteries." You can find the three delectable desserts described below at any Breton Biscuiterie or café.
Some Breton cuisine delights
The Breton cuisine strays a bit from what is typically thought of as French cooking. Rather than wine, a good meal is often paired with cider - for the climate is more favorable to apple orchards than vineyards.
The region's tie to the sea makes it's presence on the table, in the form especially of les moules frites (mussels in cream sauce and fries) and salted butter. Brittany is not usually known for its cheeses, but for its famous beurre salé (butter with sea salt), which is almost as rich and complex as a cheese. The Bretons are the only French who butter their bread at dinner time.
While a croissant au chocolat or mousse might be the more typical light dessert fare elsewhere in France, Breton desserts are not at all delicate, being packed with that delicious salted butter! Here are some of the more famous breton sweet treats.
Beautiful in its simplicity, the Gateau Breton is essentially a butter cake (brick). With a golden crust, a moist and crumbly inside, and the aroma of warm butter and sugar, I have indulged many a time in a mini Gateau Breton sold in Brittany's cafés.
It is not light fare - here are the ingredients: you'll see that it requires equal parts butter, sugar, and flour:
- 1 lb flour
- 1 lb sugar
- 1 lb salted butter
- 10 egg yolks
- 1 tsp vanilla powder
Cut the butter into the flour and sugar mixture, then add the egg yolks and vanilla. Mélange (mix) well, and knead the resulting dough with your hands.
Tip: When kneading push to dough thinly across the counter with the heel of your hand to give it a flakey consistency after baking.
Chill the dough 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter generously an 8 in pie pan. Roll the chilled dough lightly in a covering of flour and mold it to the pie pan. Bake 30-40 minutes.
Pronounced "Kween ah-MON", this little delight is as sugary as the Gateau Breton is buttery. It too makes use of the salted butter, which it packs in between its croissanted flaky layers. A layer of caramelized sugar fortresses the whole thing, requiring you to crunch your way into this baked good.
I will be upfront and admit that this one is not my favorite of the Breton desserts. After just one you experience an extreme sugar high, and the caramelized sugar is a bit distracting; it breaks into splinters and hides any delicate flavors that may lie underneath. The croissant-like form underneath is stiff and brittle, requiring more teeth cracking.
I have never tried baking the Kouign Amann myself, as I'm not a fan and it's quite an involved recipe. But if you're searching, blogger David Lebovitz has a good and illustrative Kouign Amann recipe.
Le Far Breton (Breton Flan)
The Far Breton is perhaps my favorite Breton dessert. It is essentially a deliciously smooth light yellow custard. The recipe is slightly more complicated than the Gateau Breton, but is still much easier than the Kouign Amann.
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- (Option of including prunes - a traditional ingredient)
Mix all ingredients except for the flour. Add the flour in last, small amounts at a time. Cover and chill at least 3 hours, and up to a day.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter generously an 8 in cake pan and dump in the chilled Far batter. Bake for 1 hour or until a knife comes out clean.
It won't take long for you to start believing in ghosts Brittany. The eeriness of the rugged ocean and salty breeze gives the coast a haunted feel. Spend enough time on France's western face, and bands of fairies and flocks of sunning mermaids will flicker before your eyes.
La Côte du Finistère (The Coast of Finistère)
Finistère is the extreme western department of Brittany. The latin derives from Finis Terrae, meaning the end of the earth.
The coast of Finistère is rocky and dramatic. The Breton ocean is not the best for bathing: cold frothy waves make the scene more impressive, and seaweed coats many of the pebbly beaches. The best thing to do on the Breton coast is to hike the cliffs, hunt for clams and mussels, and enjoy them with a bottle of cider at a great viewpoint.
L'Ile d' Ouessant (The Island of Ouessant)
If you're feeling the hankering to go even farther west, l'Ile d'Ouessant is a small island that can be reached by airplane or a ferry that departs from Le Conquet or Brest. (Brest, sadly, is not worth visiting. Heavily bombed in WWII, the architecture is modern and tasteless. There is little to do; the aquarium, I can attest, is very underwhelming.)
I rented a bike and took the short ferry from Brest on a day trip to see Ouessant. What first struck me was how the landscape was devoid of trees. There is no forest or agriculture - the landscape is a breathtaking sweep of moss, grass, and scattered boulders. Some of the smallest sheep in the world roam the fields, a breed called the Breton Dwarf. The whole scene is so ridiculously charming and romantic I had to laugh out loud several times.
To top it off, when visiting L'Ile d'Ouessant do as I did and enjoy a galette for lunch - a savory crêpe made of buckwheat flour, also a "cuisine typique" of Brittany. Une galette complète (a "complete crêpe) is emmental cheese, jambon (ham), and a half fried egg. Smear the uncooked egg yolk over the galette and enjoy.
La Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast)
La Côte de Granit Rose
Feeling a twitch in my legs, I decided to get out of Rennes for a bit and hike the trail that hugs a large span of the coast of Brittany, called La Grande Randonnée ("Large Hike") 34, or GR34. Though the trail doesn't pass through actual wilderness, the small coastal towns were delightful wonders. Straight out of a fairy tale, they seemed to naturally emerge from the coastline like rock formations.
The GR34 passes through La Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast), in the northern Breton department La Côte d'Armor, mainly between the small towns Perros Guirec and Ploumanac'h (note the Breton names!). The Pink Granite Coast is so named because the granite is a natural soft rosy color that glows spectacularly at sunset.
Like most of the Breton coast, though there may be a decent stream of tourists there isn't much distraction. So enjoy the quiet and mystery of the landscape, then head to the nearest café for a pint of cider and gateau breton.