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Brittany: exploring the French cuisine that brings together land and sea

From exquisite oysters smeared with sea-salt butter to a menu based around seaweed, the people of Brittany and its surrounding regions have a long history of bringing land and sea together on a plate.

The rugged shoreline of Mont Saint-Michel Bay, in Cancale. 
 

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras
By Carolyn Boyd
photographs by Slawek Kozdras
Published 14 Jul 2022, 06:03 BST

For a taste of the sea, nothing beats an oyster. And an oyster by the sea is even better. Sitting on the beach in France’s ‘oyster capital’, Cancale, with a plate of half-a-dozen huitres balanced on my lap, I look out across the water at the oyster-growing racks that stretch along the beach for half a mile. In the distance, the tiny tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel pricks the horizon, while behind me, people are buying platters just like mine from the beachfront market. 

Earlier, I’d spent an hour wandering out among the racks, squelching around on the sandy mud with my guide, Inga Smyczynski, a former oyster farmer who runs local tour company Ostreika. It was fascinating to learn just how much work goes into producing the oysters, and the experience certainly seems to have worked up a hunger in me. But just as I’m about to tuck in, Inga leans over and stops me from squeezing a lemon over the shucked bivalves. Handing me a round-ended knife and a pat of butter flecked with seaweed flakes, she shows me how to smear it on. This is oyster-eating, Breton-style.

I chew them a little before swallowing, their briny aroma filling my senses, the creamy, salty butter mingling with their slightly sweet, metallic flavour. It’s the ultimate terre et mer (‘land and sea’) combination, a theme that seems to characterise the cuisine of Brittany, whether you’re dining within sight of the sea somewhere along its remarkable, 1,700-mile coastline or eating inland in its cities or among its wild and remote countryside. 

The butter on my oyster comes from the port town of Saint-Malo, 11 miles to the west. There, within the mighty sea walls that encircle its old town, I traverse the cobbled streets that weave around towering mansions, galleries and restaurants, as well as a host of foodie boutiques. First, I pick up a selection of spice blends at Épices Roellinger, an Aladdin’s cave of a shop created in 1998 by Michelin-starred chef Olivier Roellinger who was inspired by Saint Malo and its sailors’ role on the spice route. Next, I head to nearby La Maison du Sarrasin, a shop dedicated to buckwheat, another of Brittany’s culinary staples. 

Tour company owner Inga Smyczynski among the oyster racks in Cancale.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Finally, I nip across the road to La Maison du Beurre, home to Le Beurre Bordier, a much-loved French brand created by chef Jean-Yves Bordier that blends top-quality, hand-churned butter with flavours such as Madagascan vanilla, lemon and olive oil and, of course, seaweed — the combination that had so transformed my oysters in Cancale. But while the flavoured varieties are a treat, it’s the traditional blocks of demi-sel and beurre salé (half-salted and fully salted) that are most often found on tables in the region. I spot some beurre doux — unsalted butter — tucked away, almost out of sight, and ask the man serving who buys them. He smiles and shrugs. “Parisians?” 

One of the reasons Breton butter tastes so good is that it’s made with fleur de sel, a special type of salt produced by paludiers (salt harvesters) down on the Atlantic coast. Head south, just over Brittany’s border into the Atlantic Loire Valley, and you’ll find Guérande, a town known for its salt marshes — a vast, striking patchwork of ponds and salt pans. It’s here that paludiers work with the sunshine, the sea and an impenetrable clay soil to create a product sprinkled and stirred into dishes throughout both France and 55 export destinations. 

Simon Pereon has agreed to show me his corner of the ponds. Like his father and grandfather before him, Simon has only ever been a paludie, and I’m not surprised to learn his 10-year-old son wants to follow suit. “There’s a pride in this job because it’s a high-quality product,” Simon explains. “When you put a few flakes on a tomato or a côte de boeuf, the taste just comes alive.”

We meet at the Terre de Sel visitor centre, then drive along the narrow roads that weave a precipitous path between the salt pans, arriving at Simon’s patch, which covers 45 of them. The setting is extraordinary: a vast blue sky spans out above a network of pans coloured pink by algae and interspersed with grass, dykes and ponds. The whole salt marsh area covers 19sq miles and feels peaceful and otherworldly. 

In Guérande, the 220 paludiers involved in the trade work as part of a cooperative. “We’re classed professionally as ‘farmers’, 
even though we work with seawater,” Simon explains. The practice began two millennia ago, when the Romans occupied the area, and it’s changed very little since. “Salt was a valuable commodity back then. The word ‘salary’ (‘salaire’ in French) comes from the Roman’s salt production.”

La Maison du Beurre, Saint-Malo.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

A platter of Cancale and Japanese oysters at Cancale’s oyster market.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

The pans are rectangular basins, marked out by small banks of clay, each linked to the next by small gap in its perimeter, creating a kind of labyrinth. The seawater is fed into the first pan from a pond beyond a higher bank and, as it travels through the network of pans, each just a few millimetres lower than the previous, the sun evaporates the water within leaving salt crystals. The paludier’s role is to spread the water across the shallow pond with their T-shaped paddle and then rake the crystals into piles.

Simon crouches down by the water collected in the first pond and invites me to touch it and then lick my finger, which I do — it’s certainly salty. We then do the same with the water in the final pond, and I wince at the strength of the salt. The process results in two products: gros sel, which are fat, grey salt crystals used in cooking, and the finer, whiter fleur de sel, which is used as a condiment or added to butter or salted caramel. 

“On very sunny days, you can see the crystals forming,” says Simon. “But if it rains, they melt into the water again and it takes a few days before they come back.” The life of a paludier, like that of an oyster farmer, is beholden to the elements. “I check the weather all the time, because with two or three days of good sun, you can collect a good amount of salt — around 50kg a day,” Simon explains. “We’ve had a lot of rain this year, but it’s been quite spread out, so it’s been an average season.” The harvesting season lasts from mid-April to mid-September, with the remaining months of the year given over to the maintenance of these special labyrinths, dykes and ponds. “I start at daybreak during the season,” he says. “So I’m here at about 5 or 6am. It’s so tranquil. The sun rises, I hear the birds, there are just a few cars. And in the evening, I watch the sun set.” 

Grande Plage du Sillon beach, in Saint-Malo, with the spire of the city’s cathedral in the distance.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdrasw

Seaweed specials
Around 170 miles away, at the furthest reaches of northern Brittany, locals harvest another of the sea’s products: seaweed. As I paddle in the pristine water on a beach at Cléder on Finistère’s Côte des Sables (‘sandy coast’), the fronds around my feet are as beautiful as any plant found in a garden. The frills, ribbons and strands ripple in the gentle tide and, as families play on the golden sand and in the turquoise water, foragers collect the edible varieties from the rocks around me. It’s a custom I’ve witnessed on several trips to this area, both here on the Finistère coast and on the island of Molène to the west, where a seaweed industry thrived in the 19th century (the iodine-rich algae was used in the production of glass and as fertiliser).

While seaweed has long been a valuable resource in Finistère, it’s only in recent years that it’s come to be regarded as a superfood. One of its most passionate advocates is Anne Robart, the owner and manager of the Hôtel de la Mer, in Brignonan Plage, whom I join for a brief foraging session. Ten years ago, Anne’s daughter paid for her mum to be part of a seaweed workshop — an experience that so captivated her that she ended up leaving her job as a travel agent, and taking on the local hotel in 2016 and transforming it into an eco-friendly bolthole, complete with its own seaweed foraging workshops and a restaurant menu featuring seaweed in every course.

As the sun dips below the horizon, Anne and I paddle between the blond boulders that scatter the shore in front of the hotel, and she shows me the main edible varieties fluttering in the shallows, including dulse, sea lettuce and wakame. Anne hands me a leaf of sea lettuce to nibble and explains how it can be dried or vacuum-packed to preserve for later cooking. 

Other species, such as nori, royal kombu and spirulina, are found elsewhere on the coast, while historically, a type of red kelp called pioka was used as a thickening agent in the local speciality far breton, a milky flan. “These days, cooks tend to use eggs in a far, but back then using pioka meant they could save their precious eggs for other things,” Anne explains. 

Later in the restaurant, I sample chef Mikaël Renard’s seaweed-enriched menu. There’s a peppery risotto with dulse and juicy languoustines; an abalone served with a croquette potato mashed with dulse; and a succulent steak, accompanied by a seaweed puree, with parsnips and nasturtiums. The view from the window, of sea and sunset, is every bit as enchanting as the food, and the experience is made more memorable when a man on a neighbouring table proposes to his girlfriend and the whole dining room erupts in applause. 

Paludier Simon Pereon at the plot he works on the Guérande salt marshes.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Over the following days, I’m spoiled further by the bounty on offer in this extraordinary corner of Brittany, where the land abounds with superb fruit and vegetables fertilised by the sea, and the coast offers up a wealth of seafood, fish and seaweed. At Hôtel le Castel Ac’h, at Plouguerneau, chef David Royer presents a menu titled Promenade dans les Abers (‘a walk in the abers’) — each course named after one of this coast’s five ‘abers’, the Celtic word for ‘estuaries’. A vegetable mayonnaise with buckwheat and fennel, scooped up with a fat langoustine, is so flavoursome I unwittingly let out a tiny yelp. 

A subsequent course is served with a shot of ‘lobster rum’, made for the hotel by Malo Rhum, which is flavoured with a broth of lobster and then aged in bottles in the sea for a year — the temperature and weight of the water supposedly ageing it more effectively than simply storing it in a cellar. Unusual yes, but delicious too. 

Then it’s on to Hôtel La Butte, high on a hill in the village of Plouider, where chef Nicolas Conraux has helped the hotel’s restaurant earn a Michelin star with his own approach to ‘la mer et la terre’. The business, first established as a dance hall in 1952, belonged to Nicolas’ wife’s family when he first joined as a member of the front of house team, but Nicolas was soon entranced by the incredible ingredients on offer. “Before I learned to cook, I really got to know the producers,” he says. “That’s what comes first, knowing what they do and why they do it.” After his father-in-law taught him his way around a kitchen, the hotel slowly began transforming into the luxury, eco-friendly place it is now — it was first awarded a Michelin star back in 2014. 

Aerial view showing the labyrinthine layout of Guérande’s salt pans.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Somewhat unusually, Nicolas likes to use seawater in his cuisine. “It’s microfiltered, but it keeps its taste, and we use it in stocks and with fish,” he explains. Later, in the restaurant, I’m initially brought bread with five different kinds of butter — buckwheat, hazelnut, chive, seaweed and, of course, salt. That marriage of land and sea is a constant presence throughout the meal, the highlight being the lobster with nut butter, edible flowers and a consommé of seawater and tomato. “Here in Finistère, there’s always a link between the land and sea, it’s so connected,” says Nicolas. “There are natural pairings that always work, such as lobster and tomato. But even the vegetables, like cabbages, cauliflowers and pumpkins, are produced in sight of the sea.” 

The view of the sea from the hotel’s window is so enticing that, before I leave for the ferry home, I decide to drive down to the beach at Keremma for one last walk along the sand. The tide is retreating, revealing patterns of seaweed, while a murmuration of small seabirds twirls against a vast sky, the blue blazing through cotton-candy wisps of cloud. I breathe in the briny breeze and think to myself once more that there’s really nothing better than being by the sea. Home for me is a landlocked English town. And while it might be a while before I return to the coast, with my luggage stuffed with fleur de sel, seaweed and salted caramels, at least I’ll have the taste of le terre et la mer to see me through.  

Chef Nicolas Conraux's scallops in their shells with ginger steam.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Scallops in their shells with ginger steam


Chef Nicolas Conraux, from Michelin-starred Hôtel La Butte, in Plouider, blends flavours from land and sea with influences from around the world — in this case, Vietnam. 

Serves: 4    
Takes: 30 mins 

Ingredients
2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
300ml white wine vinegar 
600ml single cream 
150g salted butter, cut into small cubes
20 fresh scallops in their shells, cleaned out and detached (ask your fishmonger to do this) 
small knob of ginger, peeled and grated 
a few drops of nuoc mam dipping sauce (or fish sauce)

Method
1. Heat the oven to 200C, 180C fan, gas 6.
2. Put the shallots and vinegar in a small saucepan over a medium heat. When it comes to the boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Then add the cream and simmer for 2 mins more.
3. Strain the mixture through a sieve and discard the shallots. Return the liquid to the pan and place over a high heat until it comes to the boil again. Remove it from the heat. 
4. Add the butter to the liquid, a few cubes at a time, mixing with a hand blender (or hand whisk) as you go. You’ll end up with a pale yellow butter sauce with a thin, custard-like consistency. Set aside.
5. Lay the scallops on a lined baking tray and top each one with a few pieces of grated ginger and a drop of nuoc mam (or fish sauce). 
6. Place in the oven and bake for 3-5 mins — they should still be a little raw in the middle. Divide the scallops between four plates and spoon the butter sauce over the top.

Langoustine risotto served up at Hôtel de la Mer, in Brignonan Plage.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Lobster rum, made with lobster broth, served at Le Castel Ac’h, Plouguerneau.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Brittany’s best

Ty Pavez 
At the Ferme de Lintan, near Vannes, Vanessa Ropert Le Bihan makes seaweed-flecked cheese with a seawater-washed rind. It’s mild with a slight saltiness. 

Salted caramel 
The brainchild of Swiss chocolatier Henri LeRoux, who came to the Quiberon Peninsula in the 1970s and used the local salted butter for his caramels. 

Saucisse molène 
The island of Molène, off north Finistère, is known for its signature dish: a sausage that incorporates smoked seaweed. Try it at Fumaisons D’Iroise in the seaside town of Le Conquet. 

Essentials


Getting there 
Brittany Ferries offers overnight sailings from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo and Roscoff. By rail, take the Eurostar to Paris, then a TGV train from Paris-Montparnasse to Saint-Malo. 

Where to stay
Hôtel des Dunes, in La Baule, is a short drive from Guérande. Doubles from €65 (£54). 
Hôtel La Butte, in Plouider, is a stylish, eco-hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Doubles from €115 (£96).

How to do it
Brittany Ferries has return fares for two people travelling by car, with a cabin on an overnight sailing. From £390 for Saint-Malo or from £288 for Roscoff (return sailings are in the day). Castelbrac Hôtel & Spa, in Dinard, is well placed for Saint-Malo and Cancale and offers doubles from €271 (£230). 

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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