Brittany has long been one of the jewels in France’s crown. Its beaches and holiday homes are flooded each summer by Parisians on their grandes vacances and Brits piling off cross-channel ferries. It’s easy to see why. From rugged stretches of coast to classy beach resorts, there’s no arguing that this region is among France’s most beautiful. But there’s more to Brittany than the campsite and coast trail. This is also one of France’s finest regions for food lovers. Come slightly out of season and not only can you get the windswept sands all to yourself, but there’s also a veritable array of culinary delights to get stuck into. Here are our suggestions for a Brittany food trip.
When it comes to cuisine, you'll be spoiled for choice in Brittany. There are world-famous oysters to slurp and salted caramels to roll over your tongue. And don't forget the second-largest food market in France to browse in the capital, Rennes. There are Michelin-starred restaurants that fuse French classics with Asian influences and South American spices, and of course, there are Breton galettes and bolées of cider at every turn.
Get inspired for your own Brittany trip with the new Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy, available now.
Brittany partly has the ocean tides to thank for its abundance of seafood. The coastline perfectly suited to farming both common rock oysters (huîtres creuses) and the native flat oysters (huîtres plates), which thrive in the waters of the Baie du Mont St-Michel.
To taste them, there’s only one place to go, the undisputed oyster capital and “one-mollusc town” of Cancale. The oyster beds here stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. Oysters are shucked near constantly along the seafront and mountain of shells threatens to breach the sea wall like a high tide.
Head to an unpretentious seafood restaurant and slurp down half a dozen huîtres. Or, try the little brown shrimp, pry the sweet meat from lobsters’ claws or get skilled with a toothpick as you pluck little black sea snails from their shells.
If you want to be resolutely Breton, a mug (bolée) of cider – the drier the better – is a good accompaniment. Or, if you prefer, a glass of frostily crisp Muscadet, made from Melon de Bourgogne in the neighbouring vineyards of Nantes.
Most visitors arrive with one aspect of Brittany cuisine on their mind: pancakes. Luckily there's a host of places waiting to indulge every batter-based fantasy. You'll come across vans selling galette-wrapped sausages smothered in mustard and little crêperies serving sweet and savoury favourites.
Traditionally, galettes and crêpes are eaten as part of the same meal. Savoury buckwheat-flour galettes come first, topped with combinations like ham, egg and cheese (known as the “complete”). White-flour crêpes are served for dessert. Forget about Nutella – if you want to embrace all things Breton, you need to drizzle your pancake with salted butter caramel sauce.
The creation of salted butter caramel (caramel au beurre salé) stems back to the 1500s. In those days, Brittany was the only region to be exempt from a salt tax known as the gabelle. As such, salt was liberally sprinkled in the local cuisine – a tradition that remains evident in Brittany’s famous salted butter today.
It’s thought the next step came about in the 1970s when an ingenious pâtissier decided to use salted butter to make caramel. A beautiful union was born, and today you’ll find salted caramel across the region.
Away from the coast, one of the other joys of Brittany is shopping in the local markets. One of the best is in the capital, Rennes. It's the second-largest market second in France (after Lille), and sprawls through the centre of the small city.
Trestle tables groan with local produce throughout the year. The likes of rhubarb, asparagus and scallops in spring and artichokes, currants and bundles of herbs in summer. Come autumn, apples and mushrooms are on sale, while in winter cabbages, potatoes and carrots add colour to hearty dishes.
While Rennes is filled with local flavours, more unusual flavours also appear. In the kitchen of the restaurant La Coquerie, the focus shifts east, to Japan. Rennes is twinned with Sendai in Japan, and this connection is echoed in Julien Lemarié’s classy fusion menu. He uses local Breton produce in recipes inspired by his time in Tokyo and Singapore – from slow-cooked egg with star anise, to confit of lime with nori to oysters in a wasabi-spiked broth.
Surprising pairings also crop up elsewhere; Brittany is no place for traditionalists. Celebrated chef Olivier Roellinger runs a hotel-restaurant near Cancale, the town where he was born. Roellinger’s unusual philosophy is based around the use of exotic spices – once bought to Brittany’s ports by corsairs – to enliven classic recipes. One of his most famous creations is homard Xérès et cacao: lobster spiced with Amazonian annatto seeds, Indian coriander, cacao, sherry vinegar and a hint of vanilla.
If this is starting to sound like a bit too much, don’t worry: Brittany does down-time well. Thanks to a law that says new houses can be built no closer than 50m from the coastline, rocky coves and deserted strands abound.
And if a sea breeze isn’t enough to blow away the cobwebs, you can even indulge in a weird and wonderful array of salt-water-based spa treatments at the Spa Marin du Val André. To be honest, though, a crepe with lashings of salted butter caramel is much more restorative.
For trips to taste the best of French food and drink, get in touch! We can connect you with a local expert to plan your very own foodie adventure.