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Exploring Hidden French Islands

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Photo: Matthieu Salvaing

Île d'Ouessant

Location: 174 miles west of Mont-St.-Michel
Distance from mainland: 12.5 miles
Surface: 6 square miles (number of times Ouessant fits into Manhattan: 3.8)
Year-round population: 852
High-season population (excluding tourists): 3,000
Hotel beds: 950

Eighteen years isn’t a lifetime, but they can seem like one when they’re the pause between trips to a place as far-flung and mythical as Île d’Ouessant, the farthest from the continent of all the Breton islands. On my first, 1988 visit I was on a food odyssey in search of a homely stew of mutton, potatoes, and no wine. It was said to be cooked out-of-doors in a cast-iron pot by the heat of smoldering taouarc’h, Celtic for clods of dried heather or grass. After dozens, maybe hundreds, of faxes and phone calls, I found someone who knew someone who knocked on the door of someone who agreed to make me un ragoût dans le taouarc’h. Young food writers who have only ever known e-mail have no idea what a cakewalk they have.

I was writing a book about the domestic art of entertaining as practiced by French people of all stripes (chatelaines, paysans...). Ouessant, the unfrivolous president of its coopérative agricole, and his stout, wind-rocked house weren’t the most obvious subject to build a chapter around, but what do you do when a stew gets under your skin?

So imagine my surprise when last August I saw taped to a window on the island a flier advertising the services of Mary Jo Dugal. For $18 a head, Mary Jo will prepare a ragoût, simmered untouched for four hours in clods, and deliver it to your hotel or the beach for a picnic supper.

Ouessant was learning to sell itself. With my dish. Tourism had obviously grown. But Ouessant has very little to sell beyond its dolorous beauty. Because there are so few trees, its residents once prayed to the Virgin Mary for shipwrecks, literally. Salvaging wood to make furniture, they ignored the murderous consequences of their prayers. This tradition of invention and recycling is enshrined in the stew, but also in the very idea of flogging it to vacationers. Islanders have a long history of looking around, identifying what little they see, and trying to make something out of it. Seaweed, another traditional fuel, is today commercialized as a comestible condiment and for use in beauty products. Seaweed is Ouessant’s one, tiny industry.

To the modern visitor, the island offers a small but exquisite menu of simple pleasures: walking, cycling, birding, glancing over garden walls to dote on the hydrangeas, eating. If these don’t excite, the loss is yours, and you’ll be happier on Belle-Île or Île de Ré. Personally, I found the smallness of the menu liberating. How luxurious to take a holiday and barely have anything to decide. If you cannot secure a reservation at Ti Jan Ar C’hafe, change your dates. It’s the only hotel worth anything, though hotel is a big word for what is really just an eight-room guesthouse. Some French guidebook calls Ti Jan’s decor Almodóvaresque. While that may be going a little far, it does have a few charismatic moments.

There are two categories of restaurants on Ouessant: Ti a Dreuz and Ty Korn, and Everything Else. The buckwheat crêpes at Ti a Dreuz attain a rare level of delicacy and refinement. Ty Korn serves the mother of all seafood platters. At Madame Orlac’h’s nameless salon de thé you can have a cream tea as good as any in Wiltshire while listening to Schubert and reading ancient copies of Paris Match. Silk-shaded lamps and Staffordshire spaniels garnish the mantelpiece. And you thought Ouessant was uncivilized.

It’s difficult to talk about Ouessant as an island of merchant seamen, which is how it was always described up to the middle of the last century, because the men’s work often had them living and dying on the other side of the globe. The stable population was made up of their heroically capable wives and mothers, who hauled the granite to build houses, shoveled earth for mortar, laid roads, and collected taouarc’h. Mutton cooked in clods—which smoke but do not flame and lend the stew a funky animal dimension—was hit upon by women with no time for standing over the pot. In 1988, the 40-minute boat ride to Ouessant from Le Conquet was so violent I fell to my knees on arrival and was demonstrably sick before a welcoming committee of people I’d never met and who were waiting to take me to lunch. While my hosts tucked into ragoût, I lay prone in an unfamiliar guest room, the smell of burning taouarc’h outside the window making me yet sicker. Ouessantins insist their island is the beginning of the world, not the end. Either way, the dish fits.

Christopher Petkanas is a Travel + Leisure special correspondent.

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