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Tastes of Brittany

Andrea Fazzari Baker Yannick Gauthier, at Cancale's Grain de Vanille

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.

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