You’re never more than a frisbee’s throw from a crêperie in Brittany. The northwest corner of France is famous for its pancakes – sweet, wafer-thin crêpes smeared with salted caramel or buckwheat galettes stuffed with artisan sausage. It’s also a popular bucket-and-spade destination. But there’s more to Brittany than beaches and pancakes. Its larder is bulging with cider, oysters and onions; that French stereotype, the beret-clad man on a bike with a string of onions round his neck, was an ‘onion Johnny,’ hopping from Brittany to Britain to sell sweet, pink onions from Roscoff.
Butter is also big in Brittany – rich, creamy and seasoned with fleur de sel from the Guérande – but, surprisingly, cheese is not. The region’s fertile farmland is marbled with dairy herds but it’s one of the few areas of France not to produce its own AOC cheese. “Why?” I asked, browsing brie de Meaux at a sprawling market on the Place des Lices in Rennes, Brittany’s capital. A Gallic shrug. “No mountains.”
Local chef Sylvain Guillemot laughed at this. Money not mountains, he told me, is the real reason. “The French government put a tax on cheese. Butter could be sold fresh and eaten immediately so was exempt.”
Guillemot’s restaurant, the Auberge du Pont d’Acigné (auberge-du-pont-dacigne.com) sits by the Vilaine river just outside Rennes and is a member of the 41-strong Breton fine-dining restaurant association, Tables et Saveurs Bretagne (tablesetsaveursdebretagne.com). He does his shopping in the Marché des Lices every Saturday and has let me join him. Rummaging through crates of muddy veg, we find black heritage carrots and root parsley. The birds on the Coucou de Rennes stall are an ancient breed of Breton chicken. At the Coat-Albret stall there are bottles of cidre nouveau, the Breton version of beaujolais nouveau.
Guillemot’s thing is seasonality, not national or even regional, but local. He boycotts stalls selling clementines in winter or scallops when the local boats don’t have any. He only buys from farmers, producers, fishermen – not middlemen. He doesn’t social-network – he producer-networks to find out about new varieties to showcase in his dishes. He’s currently championing civelles (baby eels) and tiny shellfish that grow, like barnacles, on scallops.
Later that day, at one of the Auberge’s tables, I gaze across the river to the mill where Guillemot gets his flour. You can’t get more local than that. Snapping a buckwheat and seaweed crisp, a twist on a galette, I dip it in a light buttermilk mousse. A delicate mound of spider crab sits in a cream of cauliflower. Scallops are served on a bed of parsley root purée, topped with parsley leaf purée, and a smear of scallop beard purée and jus give a tang of the sea.
My base in Brittany is Yves Rocher’s La Grée des Landes, a wood and glass building bedded into the landscape near the village of La Gacilly. This sleek eco spa hotel is greener than a Granny Smith: even the water from the swimming pool is recycled to flush toilets, and the grounds are spread with bird boxes, beehives, wildflower meadows and a potager-style garden.
The restaurant is eco-certified and chef Gilles Le Gallès uses only local and organic produce. For dinner you can feast on black sausage, spicy caramelised apples and mashed pumpkin flavoured with chamomile, while breakfast means homemade yogurt and Far Breton, a creamy custard flan laced with soft prunes.
The Rhuys Peninsula is an hour’s drive away, past a string of characterful villages. A 140km footpath hugs the coastline here, or you can wind along it by car taking in a main bay that’s speckled with tiny islands, a northern coast that’s largely salt marsh and a southern coast ruffled with long, white beaches.
In the summer a shellfish shack in the village of Le Logeo, Le Petit Port, is a popular spot. Oysters are another must-try. At Le Tour du Parc, huge mounds of broken shells line the lane – an indication of the area’s 40 or so oyster farms. These include Les Viviers de Banastere, also home to a fishmongers and waterfront restaurant (viviers-banastere.com).
Further on I come to the Maison de la Pomme, a deli and cider museum on the edge of Le Hezo, where Didier and Chantal Nicol give me a quick primer on Breton ciders: an artisan cider producer can buy-in apples, they explain, but farmer-cider is made by one farmer from his own apples. Most Breton cider is blended from a variety of apples but there is one single-estate cider, Royal Guillevic.
Sipping a glass, the natural bubbles are soft on my tongue. At first it tastes sweet and fruity, but then the dryness kicks in. It’s traditional to drink cider from a bolée (like a teacup) with your galette for lunch – so I do. For dessert I tuck into another Breton speciality, kouign amann at the Biscuitterie des Venetes (biscuiteriedesvenetes.com). The dough is layered like a croissant with salted butter and sugar. It’s then rolled up, cut into slices and baked until rich and golden.
The north coast is my final port of call. It’s here, in St Malo and Cancale, where Olivier Roellinger (maisons-de-bricourt.com), Brittany’s answer to Rick Stein, has his culinary empire. You can bed-down in a chateau or holiday cottage, eat in a tearoom or fine-dining restaurant, sign up for a class at his cookery school or, in St Malo, shop at his spice store, Epices Roellinger.
But then St Malo is worth a visit whether you’re a fan of Roellinger or not. The quaint cobbled streets of the old walled town are lined with gourmet food stores, one dedicated entirely to butter. Le Beurre Bordier (lebeurrebordier.com) dates back to 1927 and still moulds butter seasoned with Breton salt – or various other flavourings – by hand. I taste creamy slivers of smoked salt butter, then Madagascan vanilla (good for baking). My favourite, though, is Le Beurre aux Algues. The butter – blended with salty seaweed from Roscoff – is the flavour of the Breton coast.
HOW TO DO IT Return ferry crossings from Portsmouth to St Malo cost from £260 for a car and two passengers (brittany-ferries.co.uk). Double rooms at La Grée des Landes cost from £100, room-only (lagreedeslandes.com). For more information, see brittanytourism.com or uk.france.fr.
Written by Lucy Gillmore. First published May 2016