Three wheels of butter like lumpy hassocks sat on a counter at Jean-Yves Bordier, the tiny, immaculate fromagerie hidden down a dark backstreet inside the walled city of St.-Malo. Although Bordier is an esteemed curator of cheeses, and France's best were shimmering on display by the dozens, the cashmere-draped ladies in line ahead of us had eyes only for the butter.
Two of the wheels were jasmine yellow, one marked DOUX, or "sweet," the other DEMI-SEL, or "salted." The third had no label and was flecked with green and lavender specks we took to be dried herbs. The man behind the counter, wielding a wooden paddle in each hand, pried a hefty chunk from the mammoth wheel of demi-sel, dropped it onto a sheet of waxed paper, and massaged it with his paddles into a small, tidy block, which he folded up in the paper and proffered to one of the women, who tucked it into her Goyard handbag and left.
And then it was our turn. We'd just driven four hours from Charles de Gaulle and were looking for a little something to spread on a baguette to tide us over until dinner. We summoned up our finest college French and a cool Jean Reno insouciance: "A quarter-kilo of the herb butter, please."
The man's face fell slightly. "It's not herb butter," he said. "I'm sorry. It's seaweed butter."
We nearly yelped with glee. Seaweed butter?We'd never before encountered beurre aux algues, but it seemed at once deeply old-world and strangely cutting-edge—exactly the sort of comestible we'd hoped to find when we set out for the windswept northwestern coast of France.
We'd been introduced to Brittany by a friend, Tom Moore, who'd spent his childhood summers in a farmhouse there and raved about its ocean-centric cuisine: a rustic, classic French, he had said, but with mystical influences thrown in—the enduring culinary legacy of the region's Celtic soul. During the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, in the fifth and sixth centuries, some Britons sought asylum across the water, bringing their language, their rollicking music (heavy on harp and woodwinds), their traditional garb (including the bigoudène, a distinctive tall headdress for women) to a land they called Breizh. France annexed the territory in the 16th century, but the Breton culture, language, and separatist instinct have endured.
There are precious few volumes on the dishes of Brittany, but we eventually found its bible: Aimer la Cuisine de Bretagne ("Loving the Cooking of Brittany"), by chef Jacques Thorel. The book included recipes for dishes with exotic-sounding names that only deepened our interest in the place. Kig ha farz, we learned, was the signature Breton dish, a meaty, dumpling-laced soup; kouign amman was a rich, sugary butter cake. The photographs showed food that looked both medieval (a furry, lifeless rabbit posed with a hunk of raw pork) and contemporary (a scattering of clams, each with its own airy cape of foam, that seemed to have emerged from a new-wave Barcelona kitchen). We were curious what form such a cuisine would take in the new millennium.
So we charted a rough loop around Brittany, a broad peninsula that juts out toward England into the Atlantic. We would spend a couple of days in the northern fishing ports of St.-Malo and Cancale, then head southwest to Quimper, in the heart of cider-making country. We'd follow the region's southern coast east to the marshes of Guérande, source of the fabled fleur de sel, and circle back to Paris via Rennes, the Breton capital.
The seaweed butter was an early, favorable omen; spread on a fresh baguette, it had the sweet, creamy, salty flavor of a dense shellfish bisque. We had retreated from the tourist-choked streets of the walled city to the Chaussée du Sillon, a two-mile-long promenade overlooking the Gulf of St.-Malo, where locals were walking, bicycling, sunbathing, and kite boarding. We polished off our tartines on a narrow promontory that stretched so far into the shore break from the seawall that we felt we could reach out and touch the kite boarders launching themselves off the waves and into the air.
In their wet suits, against the backdrop of the ancient citadel, they resembled aliens from the future. And from where we stood, the promenaders watching from the seawall seemed to be paying homage to the waters that make Brittany the foremost supplier of fish and shellfish to the rest of the country. In fact, the region harvests nearly one-third of the oysters consumed in France, and much of its oystering industry is concentrated just 10 miles from St.-Malo, in Cancale—where we had a reservation for dinner.
As the sun dipped in the sky, we got back into our rented Citroën C2, a zippy update of the sixties' Deux Chevaux (and just as snail-like in appearance), and drove the coastal route east to Cancale. To our left, the craggy shoreline crept in and out of view as the road twisted and turned; to our right, we saw fields of hardy green leeks spiking out of the soil. We arrived close to dusk and dropped our bags at Château Richeux, an imposing grand manor just east of town, owned and managed by Olivier and Jane Roellinger, whose mini-empire, Les Maisons de Bricourt, includes two other deluxe lodgings and two food boutiques—Grain de Vanille, which sells handmade ice cream and pastries, and Épices Roellinger, a market stocking exotic spice blends and essential oils for cooking. Both shops serve as laboratories for the Roellinger kitchens, among them a traditional seafood bistro, in Château Richeux, and the more ambitious O. Roellinger, which Olivier runs out of his childhood home.
Olivier Roellinger was born and bred in Cancale, and he gets his culinary inspiration from the seafaring romance of his hometown. In publicity photos, he appears on the deck of a yacht, rugged and sea-sprayed, with the clenched look of an America's Cup mate executing a particularly challenging jibe. And he's prone to statements about food that beg to be uttered in that unctuous French-film-trailer voice: I am ceaselessly creating new spice blends so that I can enrich the treasures of the earth and the sea.
We walked into O. Roellinger somewhat wary, but our attention focused the moment the amuse-bouches—a sea snail bathed in an intense parsley water and a sweet shrimp dotted with microscopically diced tart apple—hit the table. In the similarly compelling pairings that followed—a grapefruit confit with turbot, a dab of sesame mayonnaise with tuna, an astoundingly floral nutmeg with baby sole—the oils and powders zinged across plates in artful dots and stripes were finely judged. As much as we wanted to mock the menu's breathless reference to "marine adventure," we had to admit: by channeling the spice-route corsairs who brought cardamom, curry, and cinnamon to this sleepy, windblown coast, Roellinger has created a stunning contemporary cuisine that occasionally soars out of this world.
Another quintessential Breton experience awaited us the following morning, when we visited the clutch of stalls at the Cancale oyster market, on the seawall above Mont-St.-Michel Bay. The tide was low and the fog was in, but in the near distance we could make out a diesel tractor chuffing around the muddy oyster beds. The stalls were draped in striped canvas ticking in different shades of blue and run by women who shucked oysters to order and set them out on sturdy white plastic plates. We bought a dozen and sat on the seawall, spritzing lemon over them and slurping them down, and—as instructed by our saleswoman—throwing the shells off the wall into the mud. They were glorious, unmistakably North Atlantic, with a sweet, cucumber-tinged brininess. It dawned on us that this snack was as nourishing to the senses as the previous evening's banquet—plus, it cost just $5, $300 less than we'd paid at O. Roellinger. We ordered another dozen, and by the time we'd finished, the haze over the bay had cleared; about 15 miles away, we saw Mont-St.-Michel, sitting on the opposite shore like a tiny Hershey's Kiss.
The tractor we'd been watching work the beds crept up a ramp in the seawall, dragging a trailerful of broad, flat bags of oysters, and we followed as it slowly made its way along the avenue that spanned the bayfront, stopping—and tying up traffic—every 100 yards or so to unload its catch at the town's bars.
So far, we hadn't uncovered much evidence of the cuisine de Bretagne we'd read about in Thorel. In St.-Malo, we'd tasted a few buttery, dense, but otherwise unremarkable sweet pastries labeled kouign amman. Road signs were bilingual—Breton and French—and we'd seen a spot of nationalist graffiti on a building near O. Roellinger (BZH: LA LIBERTÉ POUR BREIZH), but browsing menus in St.-Malo and Cancale, we'd found no trace of kig ha farz. Still, we continued to hope. Farther west, where we were headed, was Basse Bretagne, Lower Brittany, commonly known to have a more enduring Breton tradition. The towns along this southern coast, Tom had told us, were where we'd see women wearing bigoudènes.
Meanwhile, we were on our way to investigate the source of one Breton custom that did endure in St.-Malo and Cancale, judging from what we'd seen in the crêperies and oyster bars: the prodigious consumption of hard cider. Scores of people, young and old, drank cider, served in delicate ceramic teacups. We were eager to visit a cidery in southern Finistère, the heart of Brittany's cider-making region, so we hastened down major highways to Plonéis, just outside the town of Quimper, to drop in on Paul Coïc.
A young, first-generation cider maker, Coïc planted 1,600 apple trees on his parents' property seven years ago and is just now reaping the reward. Strolling the orchards, which roll out beyond the stone-walled barn that serves as his makeshift tasting room, Coïc plucked an apple from a tree and offered us a bite: it was so acrid, its relationship to the fruit we buy in the grocery store was hardly recognizable. The 13 varieties of apples tended by Coïc and his wife, Marie-Laurence, are of three general types, he told us—bitter, bittersweet, and sweet. His cider is made in much the same way wine is: he presses the juice by varietal and creates a blend, then ferments and ages it.
Many of Brittany's cidreries have been turned into appallingly commercial engines for generating tourist dollars; the Coïcs prefer to pour all their resources into the quality of their juice. Their work has paid off—their two ciders, a lovely champagne-like brut with a gingery note and a fuller- bodied, yeasty doux, are fabulous, and the Coïcs now supply bars and crêperies that specialize in authentic Breton food.
Coïc also offered us sips of lambig—a Breton spirit distilled from hard cider that has a burnt-caramel, rocket-fuel, and apple kick. We felt we must be getting closer to a Breton dining experience, so we asked Marie-Laurence if she knew of a restaurant that served kig ha farz.
"Only one," she said. "Chez Erwan, near the train station in Quimper."
Before hitting Quimper, though, we had to take a short detour, toward the Pointe du Raz, as far west as you can go in France without running into the sea. In Cléden-Cap-Sizun, according to Tom, we'd find an old-fashioned seafood restaurant, L'Étrave, whose grilled lobster is something of a French legend. The place wasn't much to look at, but there was not an empty space in the parking lot—always a good sign. Inside, judging from the clientele, it might have been the dining hall of a prosperous nursing home.
And the lobster?Nothing more complicated than the freshest specimens split down the middle, sluiced with the heaviest cream, and scorched under a broiler to darken the edges of the meat and the surface of the cream. Served in an oval pan the size of a canoe, it was heaven plain and simple—so heavenly, we had to brace ourselves for the possibility that whatever delights awaited us would be an inevitable return to earth.
Quimper is a handsome town that straddles a river and is best known for its faïence, or glazed pottery, an industry founded on the banks of the canal in the late 17th century. Bypassing the modern food-market hall, we visited a small but comprehensive museum on the site of a 1773 factory that effectively illustrates the modern history of Brittany through the evolving design of its tableware and clay figures. Our favorite pieces were those by René Quillivic, from early in the 20th century, showing Renaissance revivalism giving way to Art Deco and other modern influences.
That night, on a dark side street in downtown Quimper, we found Erwan. But first we ducked into Le Ceili, a friendly bar, to check out the loud music there, which sounded as if it came straight from the Scotch-Irish canon: panpipes and mandolin. Inside, we quaffed a couple of pints of Coreff, a tasty microbrew we'd seen advertised as la première bière artisanale Bretonne. The brewery was founded only 20 years ago; it has already become the Breton Guinness.
Across the street, Erwan beckoned, with its curiously lurid purple façade and bordello interior, and in we went to seek our culinary quarry. Little did we know how lucky we were: at that time, Erwan offered its formule Breton—a menu of either kig ha farz or pesked farz du (a dish of sea bream and dumplings) followed by a Breton dessert—only on Tuesdays, or by reservation. It just happened to be Tuesday, and we were even so fortunate as to get the very last portion of kig ha farz, the rustic stew of assorted meats and buckwheat dumplings traditionally served in two stages. We watched as a table of three received their bowls: the local couple schooled their novice guest in how the dish is eaten. Erwan, the chef-owner, kindly helped us. First, a beefy, almost cola-colored broth arrived in a glass bowl, with bread for dipping and a spoon for slurping. Then an oval faïence platter—crowded with slab bacon, pork shank, beef shoulder steak, and a hefty marrowbone—hit the table with a thud. Only later did we discover the layer of vegetables underneath—big chunks of roasted carrot and patty-shaped dumplings. A pitcher of hot clarified butter flavored with onion cracklings was served alongside, to lubricate the feast.
This 19th-century plowman's supper seemed fondue-like in its frank separation of protein and oil, and yet it didn't ring true as "French." As with any comfort food, we wondered what shape it—along with the baba au lambig, a rich, buttery cake soaked in Brittany's fiery apple liqueur—might take in the hands of an imaginative chef who had the power to both channel and elevate the local grub. Would Jacques Thorel be that chef? If we could work up our appetites in the next 12 hours, we would try to find out.
Driving farther south along the coast, we came to La Roche-Bernard, a former trading post on a bluff overlooking the river Vilaine. We strolled through town, killing time before our lunch reservation chez Thorel, dropping in on the studio of a mosaicist and the gallery of an accomplished potter, both located in a complex of former granaries. The 17th-century Auberge Bretonne, an elegant half-timbered stone edifice in the center of town, boasts some of the most luxurious lodgings in Brittany. There's a suave richesse to the Thorel dining room: stone floors, warmly colored stucco walls, Villeroy & Boch table settings, Spiegelau stemware. We were seated next to the glassed-in orangerie, open to the sky, that contains the restaurant's kitchen garden, which brimmed with some of the darkest earth and healthiest plants we'd seen in years. Beans raced up their poles; tomatoes beamed.
There were two menus on offer: one, an homage to the fabled sweet winemaker Château d'Yquem, paired a half bottle of 1993 d'Yquem with classic French fare such as lobster cooked in Sauternes. The chef's tasting menu—strongly recommended by our waiter—would show Thorel's more contemporary compositions, or nouveautés. Feeling adventurous, we opted for the latter, and out came seven amuse-bouches, a collection of small shot glasses and tiny plates, each more confounding than the one before. There was a mousse-like mustard wrapped in a peanut-brittle "taco," and a beet jelly so overgelled that a spoon was of little use. The next course, "quelques légumes de notre jardin," consisted of seven more tastes we were thankful were small— the asparagus flan was covered in too-crunchy coffee nibs. And so it went, the novelties arriving at the table with great visual ceremony and underwhelming flavors. At a neighboring two-top, the stocky businessmen who'd ordered the menu of classiques, a gorgeous lobster en cocotte and a bottle of Château d'Yquem, leaned back with satisfaction. The past never looked so good—and the future looked expensive; our lunch for two (with wine) came to more than $500. We should have used Thorel's terrific book as our guide to his kitchen and stuck to the simple, the traditional. Brittany is no place for tacos.
It was time to get back to the basics. Next stop, the salt flats. By the time we reached Guérande, we were so transfixed by the marshy landscape that our lunch disappointment was a distant memory. On an impossibly intricate field, as far as the eye could see, were geometric enclosures of open water inscribed with mazelike channels, where the paludiers, or salt panners, evaporate the salty Atlantic into an even saltier conclusion. A few narrow roads traverse the green swaths of marsh that surround the pans, and we drove right through the middle of the field until we came across a panner selling bags of discounted fleur de sel, the finest grade of feather-light crystals. We bought as much as we could fit into the little Citroën.
We traveled on to Rennes, a busy university town with an old quarter of densely clustered half-timbered houses that seem to lean precariously against one another and to teeter over the narrow ruelles. Running along the lintels of the finer houses are delicately carved reliefs of warriors and saints—we thought we saw one figure carrying a salt pan. We were out crêperie-hopping, downing cider by the teacup, when we came across a short, sturdy guy in a chef's apron posting a new menu in the window of a whitewashed room with 10 tables. We took a closer look and read: I propose a menu that evolves over the months. With a menu this short, I can offer you the best of each ingredient.
The chef's tasting menu was $45. It seemed like a direct challenge to us, so we made a reservation for that night and pledged to stop eating crêpes.
Our dinner at La Table d'Eugénie was the most contemporary meal we experienced during the whole trip: pretty, full of intense, seasonal flavors, stylishly spiced (just enough to seem original), minimalist without being mannered. A dense, silky terrine of foie gras was shaped and toned by the sweet fire of five-spice powder down one side and a sprinkling of crackly fleur de sel. A single seared scallop on a pillow of pearl barley had creamy tomato gravy with a hint of fenugreek and a wisp of lemon zest. Pig's cheeks, cooked to melting tenderness in a rich Armagnac and pork broth for seven hours, were served in a cast-iron Staub pot with snappy summer peas, leeks, baby squash, new potatoes, and a tender carrot, a latter-day kig ha farz.
Toward the end of the night, the chef emerged, in a white T-shirt and sneakers, and passed from table to table to introduce himself. He was Erwann Hergué, a native of St.-Nazaire, near Guérande; he was new in town; his restaurant had been open only a few months.
And before that?we asked.
He'd been working at a place called Jean Georges, he said, in New York City—had we heard of it?
Rang a bell, we said.
Actually, he hadn't been a chef there, only a service captain, but he picked up a few tricks observing what went on in the kitchen before his work visa ran out. He had a hunch he'd return to Brittany someday, to open the place of his dreams—nothing complicated or expensive, just straightforward cooking, but fresh in its own way. We thanked him profusely for finishing our trip on that perfect note, and said we'd give his regards to Broadway.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure.
WHEN TO GO
Many of Brittany's best hotels and restaurants close for the winter months, so the prime time to visit is April through October (with the exception of August, the French national holiday, when the region is overcrowded).
Brittany's easternmost edge is a four-hour drive from Paris. The fastest route to Breton towns is to fly Air France to Rennes's St.-Jacques airport (RNS) via Paris, then rent a car.
WHERE TO STAY
Les Maisons de Bricourt
Olivier and Jane Roellinger offer rooms in a grand 1920's villa; a stately, ivy-covered stone house; or renovated seamen's cabins. 1 Rue Duguesclin, Cancale;
33-2/99-89-64-76; www.maisons-de-bricourt.com; doubles from $192.
Le Moulin de Rosmadec
This quaint four-room hotel rises on a riverbank in Pont-Aven, an artists' haven Gauguin visited regularly in the late 1880's.Venelle de Rosmadec, Pont-Aven; 33-2/98-06-00-22; doubles from $102.
Chef Jacques Thorel's wife, Solange, runs an inn above his restaurant, with spacious rooms that exude old-money polish and clubby charm.
2 Place Duguesclin, La Roche-Bernard; 33-2/99-90-60-28; www.auberge-bretonne.com; doubles from $216.
WHERE TO EAT
Brittany's star chef transforms the region's raw materials into contemporary haute cuisine.
1 Rue Duguesclin, Cancale; 33-2/99-89-64-76; dinner for two $280.
Don't let the campy sea-shanty décor fool you; the kitchen prepares delicious dishes from the bounty of the local waters.
8 Rue de la Corne du Cerf, St.-Malo; 33-2/99-56-71-58; dinner for two $52.
Au Pied d'Cheval
The docks at Cancale are the ur–oyster experience, but the market is short on comforts such as wine and frites. This is the best of the bayfront oyster houses.
10 Quai Gambetta, Cancale; 33-2/99-89-76-95; dinner for two $32.
Crêperie de la Passerelle
Set above the docks of the pretty port town of Douarnenez, visit this crêperie for authentic buckwheat pancakes.
17 Blvd. Camille Réaud, Douarnenez; 33-2/98-92- 13-28; lunch for two $25.
The legendary creamed lobster served in this vaulted, no-frills dining room, not far from Brittany's blustery Baie des Trépassés, is not to be missed.
Rte. de la Pointe du Van, Cléden-Cap-Sizun; 33-2/98-70-66-87; dinner for two $120.
Beneath the wacky skin of this bistro lies a beating Breton heart. The chef cooks rib-sticking dishes like kig ha farz, a landlubber's bouillabaisse.
1–3 Rue Aristide Briand, Quimper; 33-2/98-90-14-14; dinner for two $44.
Among the Muscadet vineyards south of Nantes, Roellinger protégé Benoît Debailly serves French country cuisine with flashes of modern brilliance.
Château-Thébaud; 33-2/28-21-31-16; dinner for two $42.
La Table d'Eugénie
Young chef-owner Erwann Hergué brings meticulous technique to simple, fresh French food.
2 Rue des Dames, Rennes; 33-2/99-30-78-18; dinner for two $100.
Where to shop
Jean-Yves Bordier Beurrier et Fromager
Pick up provisions from this esteemed shop and picnic on the St.-Malo seawall.B 9 Rue de l'Orme, St.-Malo; 33-2/99-40-88-79.
Vent de Voyage
This homey boutique makes stylish furnishings and tote bags out of recycled sailcloth.
3 Rue St.-Thomas, St.-Malo; www.ventdevoyage.com; 33-2/99-20-17-91.
What to Do
Cidrerie Paul Coïc
Five miles northwest of Quimper, a first-generation cider maker produces top-notch brews and distilled lambigs.
Kerscouédic, Plonéis; 33-2/98-91-14-11.
Musée de la Faïence de Quimper
This compact museum brings to life the 300-plus years of artisanal glazed-ware production in Quimper.
14 Rue Jean-Baptiste Bousquet, Quimper; 33-2/98-90-12-72; www.quimper-faiences.com.
Musée des Marais Salants
After chatting with salt panners in the marshes of Guérande, drop in to learn how their ancestors began harvesting the world's finest salt.
29 bis Rue Pasteur, Batz-sur-Mer; 33-2/40-23-82-79.
The Celtic origins of Breizh are audible in the rollicking Friday-night live music sessions at this pub, which is also serious about local beers.
1 Rue Georges Dottin, Rennes; 33-2/99-31-07-51.
What to Read
The Oysters of Locmariaquer
By Eleanor Clark. First published in 1964, this is a compelling memoir of life among oyster gatherers in a village on Brittany's south coast.
Aimer la Cuisine de Bretagne
By Jacques Thorel. The outstanding guide to the region's cuisine includes recipes and stunning photographs throughout.