Saturday, 5 February 2011

From the Phare Ouest: Little Britain? That's Breizh to you!

Perhaps it's the cold weather. Or maybe it's part of my recent obsession with classic films set in the heat of summer (Voyage to Italy (1954, Rossellini), Seven Year Itch (1955,Wilder), To Catch a Thief (1955, Hitchcock), to name but a few) Whatever it is, I always get to that point in the year when I stumble across pictures from the summer and lament the fact that I live in such a rainy country. Scotland is amazing. Its weather is not. And the fact is, when you happen to spend most of the summer in gorgeous California sunshine, little else compares. That is of course, unless you stop comparing and settle on alternative summers.
When I was younger, there was a brief span of time when my family went on summer holidays. They tended to be about three weeks long and usually included somewhere with sunshine and maybe a beach. We would leave Paris, pack up the car and head into the unknown. One year it was wine country and beaches in the almost-South of France. The next it was Italy, then California, the UK and then, somehow or another, we ended up in Brittany.
Brittany, home of striped shirts, cider, strange names, and butter. Oh, and of course, the English. I jest. While many of the above are specialties of the region, (namely the butter and cider), they make up only a small part of Breton culture. From distinctive languages such as Breton (Brezhoneg), and the lesser known Gallo (Galo), to history that dates back to the Neolithic era, there exists a culture that can be traced back to the very origins of France. On a good day, you can see Mont Saint-Michel from Cancale, and Jersey from Saint-Malo. And then, of course, there's the food.
The first time I went to Brittany, I was nine. I was there with a Texan family of five who looked after me during my spring holiday while my father was on a business trip. I hadn't lived in France for long at this point and was rather homesick for America. I had wanted to go on the school ski trip, but for whatever reason was not allowed. And perhaps worst of all was the fact that I refused to eat absolutely anything that was French. The solution? Steak hachée. And the occasional pizza. But mostly steak hachée. Telling us it was a hamburger without the bun worked. It came with french fries and ketchup. And we literally ate it for every meal.
Return to 2010. I arrived back from America just in time to travel to Brittany for the last few days of the family vacation. I was ready for the sun, sand, and surf but was greeted with cold, wet, and grey conditions. It was unfortunate, but thankfully, there was something else to look forward to: the food.
That's right. After all of the complaining and wingeing of Brittany 1.0, it might seem a little surprising. Don't be fooled, I didn't return for the steak hachée either. Instead I spent four days eating mussels, drinking cider, and enjoying every kind of apple and/or caramel dessert in sight. I don't normally go for a full menu when I'm home (entrée, plat, dessert- starter,main, dessert) because often, I simply cannot eat that much. In Brittany, I'm not sure I ever had anything but the full menu. From amazing fish soup to perfectly cooked St. Pierre, there was nothing that could be any more satisfying after spending all day inhaling the sea air. Even the simple galette (buckwheat pancake usually served with cheese, ham, and a fried egg, called a complète) tasted amazing, especially when paired with a bottle of Breizh Cola (Le Cola du Phare Ouest!).
And so, despite the bad weather, the trip was a success. There may have been the uncomfortable sofa bed and the strange range of television channels (Unlike many of the French channels, BBC Channel Islands, came in perfectly) but, there was also amazing food, beautiful views, and of course family. We headed back to Paris on the sunniest day of the entire vacation with a car crammed full of cookies (galette), caramels, cider, and books. The only thing missing were the matching marinière (striped shirts traditional to Brittany, often used in caricatures of the French)! Next year, perhaps?

Cancale before Paris

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