Brittany: The Kitchen at the End of the Earth

The bounty of Brittany—the westernmost portion of France—is displayed every Saturday in the bustling open-air market in Morlaix, a river port in the departement of Finistere. Finistere means "end of the earth", but there is no feeling of desolation or privation here. Fish of many varieties, just pulled from the neighboring sea, is laid out on ice, as is an abundance of shellfish—local Belons and other oysters, sea urchins, scallops, langoustines, several kinds of crabs. Other stalls brim with produce grown in the golden belt of rich farmland that curves around the coastline—cauliflower, onions, peas, cabbages, the especially plump Breton artichokes. Also on view is pork, succulent lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, and local garlic sausages and tripes. Dairy farmers sell fresh milk and the region's famous salted butter. Apples from orchards in Argoat, strawberries from Plougastel, and tiny new potatoes from sandy flats just inland from the sea round out the Breton cornucopia.

In the middle of the market, standing at a stall heaped with vegetables, Patrick Jeffroy plucks two leaves from an artichoke and rubs them together near his ear. A young-looking man, who grew up just steps away from the marketplace, Jeffroy has been coming here since he was a boy. "My grandmother, who shopped at this market before I was born," he says, "taught me how to 'hear' if an artichoke is really fresh. When you rub the leaves together, they should sing." Such early tips paid off: Jeffroy is now one of the most popular chefs in Brittany.

In 1988, he opened a hotel-restaurant in nearby Plounerin; a year later, it was awarded a Michelin star. At the restaurant, Jeffroy uses local products to create his own innovative cuisine, including such dishes as crabmeat with grapefruit vinaigrette, celery ravioli with shellfish and Madras curry sauce, and sweetbreads with caramelized balsamic vinegar and confit of baby leeks. He is not a traditional Breton chef, in other words—but he lovingly defends the simple, sturdy specialties he grew up on, and he remembers vividly and with great affection the days he spent on his grandmother's farm, where he fed chickens, picked apples, and tended the vegetable garden. Brittany has changed since the days of his childhood; the old days are gone. But Jeffroy offers to guide me on a nostalgic journey into the Breton culinary past, by cooking for me some of the dishes he learned from his mother and grandmother—simple foods that still define this region of France.

Until as recently as the 1960s, Brittany remained something of a rural, windswept, rugged, and isolated rocky peninsula. Poorly served by trains and roads, it stayed a separate world, enclosed by old traditions. In the last few decades, though, with the construction of better roads and the arrival of the sleek, high-speed train, the TGV, Brittany has joined the modern era, and now ships its produce and seafood all over Europe.

But prosperity and modernity haven't severed Brittany's ties to the past. Unlike most of France, which was originally settled by Germanic tribes, one group of Brittany's earliest known inhabitants were Celtic. They named the craggy coastal portions of their new home Armor, meaning "land near the sea"; the interior was called Argoat, "land of the forest". In the first century A.D., the Romans subdued the Celts; in the third and fourth centuries, barbarians drove many of the Celts out of the region, across the Channel to the British Isles. Around A.D. 460, there was a large immigration of Celts from Britain. This time they christened the area "little Britain"—Breizh in their language, Bretagne in French, Brittany in English. It was here, according to legend, that King Arthur established the round table—and the Paimpont Forest in eastern Brittany is still called Broceliande by many locals, after the mystical forest where Arthur met with his knights and where Merlin was kept for eternity under the spell of the beautiful enchantress, Vivian.

The Breton language is closely related to Irish and Welsh. Place names throughout the region reflect this Celtic heritage. Plounerin, for instance, contains the root word plou (parish); Kermaria derives from ker (village or house). It is estimated that about 500,000 people in all of France still speak Breton regularly at home, and the Breton nationalist movement has ensured that the language is still offered in local schools. "Without the Breton language," says a spokesman for the Universite de Lorient, on the region's southern coast, "the identity of Brittany would be lost."

Religious customs are also maintained in Brittany—for instance, the frequent grands pardons held by scores of villages on patron saints' days. These are processions in which townspeople in traditional dress—the women in their lace caps, called coiffes in French—parade through the streets and around the countryside carrying religious banners. And then, of course, there is the tradition of Breton cuisine.

"Old-fashioned Breton cooking is not elaborate," says Patrick Jeffroy. "It's not belabored or particularly polished. We don't want to cover up the flavor of the ingredients." Indeed, in Brittany, the quality of the ingredients that go into a dish has always been more important than any complicated techniques or fancy sauces that might be applied to them. Gastronomes in other parts of France have been known to argue, in fact, that there is no such thing as a Breton cuisine. But what else would you call the panoply of fresh, unpretentious, full-flavored foods to which Jeffroy introduced me?

"The crepe symbolizes all that is Brittany," says Jeffroy—who, like most Bretons, grew up dipping his finger into the batter while the grown-ups cooked. More basic to the region's gastronomy than bread, crepes come in two main varieties: Crepes sucrees, or sugared crepes, made with plain wheat flour mixed with eggs and milk, are generally folded over a sweet filling of some kind. Crepes salees, salted crepes, also called galettes, are made with buckwheat flour, eggs, and water, and are usually filled with savory ingredients. Creperies, which dot almost every street in Brittany, serve extensive all-crepe menus, offering fillings ranging from a sprinkling of sugar or a bit of jam to layers of ham, vegetables, and cheese. Crepes are eaten at any time of day, as a snack or as a full meal—and are almost always accompanied by a cup or bowl of locally pressed cold (alcoholic) cider.

"There is a whole ceremony based around making crepes at home," says Jeffroy. "The entire house smells good and the whole family comes together." If there was sweet crepe batter left over, Jeffroy continues, thrifty Bretons would pour it into a pan, top it with fruit, and bake it into a dessert. That dessert, called far (or, in the Leon region of northern Finistere, pouloud or pouloudig—from the English pudding), became a favorite in Brittany. Today, it's made from scratch, and is usually topped with sliced apples or prunes or raisins, and often spiked with rum.

If the crepe is the basic everyday food of Brittany, lobster is the primary festive food. The quintessential Breton recipe for this most noble of shellfish is homard a l'armoricaine—a classic preparation of lobster sauteed with spicy tomato sauce. Various kinds of fish are sometimes served with the same sauce, but most Breton seafood cookery is much less elaborate. "Nothing is better," says Jeffroy, "than the freshest shellfish, shellfish that never gets near a refrigerator, taken right from the sea and either cooked in the simplest possible way or served raw. I love to share a plateau de fruits de mer with friends at home, with nothing but bread and salted butter, and dry cider or a cold white wine on the side."

One Breton seafood recipe that is slightly more complex is cotriade, now considered a luxury dish, but long the traditional daily stew of poor local fishermen. Heading out to sea for four or five days, fishermen took along provisions that would not spoil easily—potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks. Throwing these into a pot of water spiked with sea brine, they'd put in some of the more common fish they caught that day—a mix that might include mackerel, conger eel, sardines, skate, crab, mussels, and shrimp, among other things. "It was a simple, nourishing soup," says Jeffroy, "developed out of necessity." The more intricate version now served on dry land adds assorted herbs and spices and perhaps a little wine, and is apt to use a more upscale variety of seafood—crayfish or a lobster tail for a special occasion, says Jeffroy—but even then it retains its honest, unfussy Breton character.

If cotriade is Brittany's bouillabaisse, kig ha farz is its pot-au-feu. A specialty of the Leon region, it is a hefty stew made with beef or salt pork, cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, garlic, and leeks. The farz, or stuffing, is a thick buckwheat porridge made with bouillon, milk, and a dollop of lard, wrapped in a dishcloth, and immersed in the pot to cook alongside the stew. By the time the stew is finished, the farz has become a heavy, crumbly dumpling or pudding, to be fluffed with a fork and served with the meat, vegetables, and broth. Like many stews, explains Jeffroy, kig ha farz is better the next day. "So is the leftover farz," he adds. "We saute it in pork fat until it gets crisp, then eat it with the reheated kig."

Jeffroy also introduces me to kouign amann, Breton for butter cake—a traditional dessert said to have originated in the mid-19th century in the port of Douarnenez, at the southwestern tip of Brittany. "I'm from the north," Jeffroy says, "so I didn't grow up eating this cake. But now you find it throughout Brittany. And I do like it." Liking it is easy: It's made with tons of sugar and an outrageous amount of butter. A luscious kouign amann, warm from the oven, its top caramelized and crunchy, seems the rich essence of good, simple cooking—the essence of Brittany.