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Eating and Drinking Well in Brittany
Brittany is a land of the sea. Bounded on two of its three sides by water, it's a veritable trove of fish and shellfish. These aquatic delights, not surprisingly, dominate Breton cuisine, but crêpes, lamb, and butter also play starring roles.
Maritime headliners include coquilles St-Jacques (scallops); langoustines, which are something between a large shrimp and a lobster; and oysters, prized for their balance of briny and sweet. Perhaps the most famous regional seafood dishes are homard à l'armoricaine, lobster with cream, and cotriade, fish soup with potatoes, onions, garlic, and butter.
Beyond the sea, the lamb that hails from the farms on the little island of Ouessant, off the coast of Brest, is well known. Called pré-salé, or "salt meadow," they feed on sea-salted grass, which tenderizes their meat while their hearts are still pumping. Try the regional ragoût de mouton and you can taste the difference. Of all its culinary treasures, however, Brittany is best known as home of the humble crêpe—a large, delicate pancake served warm with a variety of sweet or savory fillings.
Chouchen, Brittany's classic meadlike beverage made from honey, dates back to Celtic times, when it was considered an aphrodisiac and an elixir d'immortalité. Artisanal chouchen is often blended with luscious Breton honeys. This delicious drink is traditionally served cold as an aperitif to highlight its refreshing qualities and its soft, earthy flavor.
Brittany's most illustrious contribution to French cuisine is the crêpe and its heartier sibling the galette. What's the difference between the two? The darker galette is made with tender buckwheat called blé noir or blé sarrasin, and has a deeper flavor best paired with savory fillings—like lobster, mushrooms, or the traditional ham and cheese. A crêpe is wafer-thin and made with a lighter batter. It is typically served with sweet fillings like strawberries and cream, apples in brandy, or chocolate. Accompanied by a glass of local cider, galettes and crêpes make an ideal light, inexpensive meal. Traditionally, crêpes are eaten from the tails toward the center point to save the most flavorful, buttery part for last.
At seven dollars a dozen, you simply can't do better than a plate of freshly shucked Cancale oysters and half a lemon from a seafood stand along the quay. Best enjoyed atop the breezy sea wall overlooking the Mont Saint-Michel bay, the shells are simply tossed seaward after slurping the succulent insides. Cancale's oyster beds benefit from some of the world's highest tides and strongest currents, which keep the oysters oxygen- and plankton-rich, resulting in a large, firm, yet tender specimen.
Plougastel Strawberry and Camus de Bretagne Artichoke
Together, the four regions of Brittany make up France's highest yielding farmland. Among the more prosaic crops grown here are two standouts: the large, fleshy camus artichoke and the plump Plougastel strawberry. Come spring, the markets of Brittany (and Paris, for that matter) are teeming with enthusiastic cooks just itching to get their hands on the first produce of the season. The juicy Plougastel strawberry season lasts for only a few weeks in June, while artichoke season runs into the fall.
Temperate Brittany's lush grazing lands make for exceptional milk products and, like wine, they are discussed in terms of élévages (maturity) and terroir (origin). Butter your roll at a four-star Paris restaurant and you're likely getting a taste of Brittany's finest—le beurre Bordier. Jacques Bordier, headquartered in St-Malo's Vieille Ville, sets the gold standard for butter, and his luscious sweet cream version is imported daily to top restaurants throughout France. Other flavors include a pungent purple- and green-flecked algae butter (best slathered on sourdough and eaten with oysters), and the beurre fleur de sel de Guérande, laced with crunchy grains of the prized grey-hued salt hand-harvested in the salt marshes of Guérande, near La Baule.
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