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.