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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
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
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are contributing editors for Travel +
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,
33-2/99-89-64-76; www.maisons-de-bricourt.com; doubles from
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
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
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.
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;
What to Do
Cidrerie Paul Coïc
Five miles northwest of Quimper, a first-generation cider
maker produces top-notch brews and distilled
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;
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