Friday, April 6, 2012

Crêpes in Cornouaille

Reaching out into the wild Atlantic and dotted with prehistoric megaliths, the granite peninsula of Brittany has an elemental mystery. In the ancient Celtic region of Cornouaille, residents take as much pride in its distinct culture as in its signature dish – the crêpe. The Bretons have elevated these simple golden disks, filled with seafood or smeared with honey or lemon, into an art form.

The humble pancake occupies a revered place in Brittany, where delicate, wafer-thin crêpes have been a way of life and an essential ingredient of gatherings since medieval times. Crêpes certainly rule in Quimper, Brittany’s oldest city and the capital of Cornouaille, an historic region that was first settled in the Middle Ages by Welsh and Cornish Celts fleeing from the Anglo- Saxon invasion of Britain. They named this region in the southwest of Brittany “Cornouaille”, the same as one of the places they had left – Cornwall.
 Brittany became part of France in 1532, but Quimper still has much to show of its Breton history. Cobbled streets lined with 14th-century timber houses still bear the names of the trades that once thrived there: rue Kèrèon was full of shoemakers, rue des Boucheries housed butchers, and the Place au Beurre was the place to buy butter. In July every year the town celebrates its Breton culture and heritage in the Festival de Cornouaille, drawing musicians, dancers, and visitors from Celtic communities around the world.
 Beyond Quimper, Cornouaille’s coast of dramatic cliffs, sheltered bays, and sandy beaches beckons fans of watersports along with walkers and cyclists. The region has long been a favorite of painters escaping Paris in summer, and in the 1860s a cosmopolitan colony of artists sprang up in Pont Aven, a coastal village southeast of Quimper. It included the celebrated Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, who immortalized the Bretons in his paintings. The Inn of Marie Henri in neighboring Le Pouldu still features walls covered in works by the artist and his followers.
 Crêpes provide the perfect counterpoint to any activity in Cornouaille, functioning as a snack, meal, or dessert according to the size and filling. There are two main varieties: true crêpes, which are made from white wheat flour, milk, and eggs; and galettes, made from buckwheat flour, salt, and water. Some insist the batter be beaten with a wooden spoon, while others add local Breton cider and skip the milk, but everyone agrees on the need for a tiny wooden rake (a rozell, or rouable) to spread the batter onto a hotplate, and a spatula (spanell or viroué) to flip it. Traditionally, galettes are savory – a classic is topped with ham, grated cheese, and a softly fried egg nestling in the middle – while crêpes are usually vehicles for sweet treats, such as hazelnut cream or strawberry jam. But the joy of these pancakes is their endless variety, which allows modern tastes to play with a 15th-century classic.
 The Best Places to Eat Crêpes
 Crêperie An Diskuiz inexpensive
Billing itself as a crêperie gourmande, this establishment is serious about what it puts on a plate – only 100 percent quality buckwheat and wheat crêpes. Settle into the tiny stone-walled room with its wooden beams and tables splashed with red, yellow, and pale green cloths, order a house cocktail (kir with chestnut cream in winter, or morello cherries and sparkling apple juice in summer) and study the menu. Savory crêpe offerings include Cabri, filled with goat cheese, bacon, walnuts, and cream; La Dahouet, stuffed with scallops from Saint Brieuc and leek fondue; and Côte d’Emeraude – a creamy melange of scallops, mushrooms, bacon, and parsley. Dessert crêpes feature local products such as jellies from Vergers du Cap Coz and de Fouesnant honey, with combinations including orange marmalade with chocolate enveloped in a black wheat crêpe, and one bursting with seasonal fruit. Wash it down with farmhouse cider or, better still, apple brandy.
12 rue Elie Fréron, Quimper; open noon–2 PM Mon–Sat, 7–10 PM Mon–Tue, Thu–Sat; +33 2 9895 5570
 Also in Quimper
 Sainte Catherine (+33 2 9853 2824; inexpensive), in the shadow of Quimper’s cathedral, dishes up crêpes bursting with local goodness. Seafood fanciers will fall for the buckwheat pancake with mussels, scallops, shrimp, and mushrooms in a saffron sauce, while meat-eaters can opt for hearty black pudding and pan-fried apples. Sweet treats include an oozy salted caramel crêpe.
 Also in France
 Crêperies are a common sight in Paris, but they’re rarely the real Breton deal. For that, you need to head to the rue du Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The reason? Montparnasse station, the hub for trains to and from Brittany, is close by. Two popular crêpe crusaders in the street are Crêperie de Josselin (+33 1 4320 9350; inexpensive) at number 67 and Crêperie Saint-Malo (+33 1 4320 8719; inexpensive) at number 53. The flambéed apple and maple syrup crêpe here will crank up lagging sugar levels.
 Around the World
 French expat Sylvie Lemer is responsible for bringing some Breton flavor to San Francisco’s funky Mission district. At Ti Couz (415-252-7373; moderate), she cooks up thin buckwheat galettes embracing fat scallops in a buttery sauce or classic ham and cheese, and sweet crêpes like the decadent white chocolate and Chantilly cream.
 Crêpe Festivals
Fête de la Crêpe:On the last weekend in July, the crêpe takes pride of place in the village of Gourin, in Morbihan. Breton dancing, pipe bands, Celtic singers, exhibitions by local artists, and, of course, fresh crêpes provide entertainment for all.
Rennes festival : In May and June, crêperies in the city of Rennes compete to win the title of best galette and best crêpe. Pancake eaters are spoiled for choice, with everyone vying for accolades.
Fête de la Galette: On the last Sunday in September, Pipriac, in Ille-et-Vilaine, hosts its galette festival. Expect a galette-making competition, buckwheat exhibitions, and Celtic concerts.
 Three Days in Cornouaille
Wild surfing beaches, sandy seaside resorts, lively markets, and fishing villages with wonderfully fresh seafood vie for attention with walled towns and the Breton interior with its fascinating Celtic heritage.
DAY ONE:Ramble around Quimper’s charming old town, taking in the twin-spired St. Corentin Cathedral. Visit the Breton Museum to learn how Celtic and Breton folklores intertwine. Anyone with a penchant for pottery will love the Musèe de la Faïence, with its 2,000-strong collection of centuries-old ceramics.
DAY TWO: Drive or catch a bus to Locronan, one of France’s most beautiful villages. Sacred to the Celts, it was a sail-making hub in the 16th century and its granite houses have inspired many a movie director, including Roman Polanski, who filmed Tess (based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles) here in 1979.
DAY THREE: Follow the Painters’ Trail (using guides from the tourist office in Quimper) to see how and where the artists lived and what inspired them.
 Regular trains run from Paris to Quimper. Car rental is essential to explore the region.
Hôtel Gradlon (inexpensive) offers cozy rooms near downtown Quimper.
 Les Sables Blancs (moderate) is a stylish hotel perched on the Bay of Concarneau.
 Domaine de Kerbastic (expensive) is a boutique hotel in a pretty château 40 minutes from Quimper.

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