I first fell in love with Brittany many years ago, back in the days when it took nearly seven hours to travel by train from Paris to Quimper, a charming town in Finistère, the remotest corner of this shaggy green Atlantic province. What first exhilarated me about Brittany was the breathtaking beauty of its indented coastline. I also liked its peaceful countryside, the simple solid architecture of its tidy villages, the doorways and windows of the white houses bordered with granite, the churches with steeples sharp enough to rally a conscience, the superb seafood and the friendly and well-mannered Bretons themselves.
Brittany mapI’ve been back many times since, but my most recent visit was perhaps the most enjoyable trip of all. Of late, Brittany has become discreetly sophisticated in ways that don’t mar its down-to-earth charm. There is now a range of excellent small hotels, plus outstanding and affordable restaurants. Indeed, with all due respect to Alsace, Burgundy and Provence, I think you eat better in Brittany today than you do anywhere else in France. The province has a constellation of talented young chefs creating light, healthy contemporary cuisine. Most of France’s fish is landed in Breton ports; many of its best oysters come from Brittany; and the quality of the butter, fowl, beef and vegetables produced in its interior is second to none.
In the Breton language, the phrase l’Armor et l’Argoat, “the coast and the hinterland,” explains the yin and yang of this Celtic region. The Bretons are both attached to, and wary of, the sea. Like many Celtic peoples, they did not traditionally eat fish, much less shellfish, which they shunned from a fear that it might have fed on drowned sailors. It was the advent of tourism that created a boom in seafood cookery and caused many Bretons to sample the riches of their own waters. Today, Brittany’s fishing ports send out a fleet of small boats, and their catch is, arguably, the best in the world.