A highlight of a trip to Brittany is digging for clams, then eating them, washed and cold, with butter, pumpernickel, lemon slices and cider or Muscadet
A trip to Brittany in northern France is not really complete without digging for clams in tidal pools and sitting by the sea eating a plateful of “fruits de la mer” or seafood in English. In the old days fishermen prepared fish soup on board ship using any fish they had caught in their nets, liberally spiced. It was sort of a northern bouillabaisse, but Breton style.
It is interesting to note that much of the action in Arthurian legend takes place in Brittany, most notably in the Forest of Broceliande, where Merlin, the court magician was supposed to have lived. Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King became one of the main sources of information about Arthurian legend.The earliest mention of King Arthur goes back to mediaeval days when Arthur was supposed to have been a king in Britain. Because of the close ties of Bretons with their Welsh, Cornish and British cousins and their knowledge of two languages – their own Breton language as well as French, this story traveled as far as Italy.
Breton Style Bouillabaisse
To be absolutely correct, my Larousse Gastronomique says that the true name for this northern fish soup is actually “Cotriade” or Breton Bouillabaisse. It differs from the Provencal variety because the fish caught in northern climes differs, so fishermen and their wives select from some but not all of the following: the sardine, mackerel, John Dory, conger eel, hake, red mullet, and the sea devil (angel fish). No garlic as in the south, but onions browned in butter, water, potatoes, possibly bay leaf, thyme, and any other aromatic herbs at hand..
Colorful Local Customs
Most of Brittany, especially the region known as Cornouille, has retained local traditions and characteristics which have made it attractive to tourists.Colorful costumes are worn on feast days and at weddings and special foods, such as Breton pancakes, always served with the local cider are famous. Other renowned Breton dishes include Brochette de Coquilles-St. Jacques, which is a succulent dish of scallops, mushrooms and bacon on skewers. The shells or “coquilles” are named after the saint because medieval pilgrims carried them on their pilgrimages to the shrine of St. James at Compostella in Spain.
Canadian Ties to Brittany
These traditions are remembered by many Canadians with ties to Brittany, either through their Breton ancestors who followed Jacques Cartier from St. Malo in Ille-et-Vilaine, or through much more ancient ties to the Celts who were driven out of England in the fifth century by invading Anglos and Saxons. Megalithic monuments, known as dolmens are scattered around the countryside, most notably at Carnac.Their purpose is still unknown and there is lots of speculation about them. Some people believe they were made by Druids. Stone calvaries, with carvings of the Crucifixion, are later additions to the landscape. They seem to be everywhere.
The old fishing ports and villages host many religious processions and pilgrimages. Many take place around Pentecost. One unforgettable age-old pilgrimage takes place in July at Sainte-Anne d’Aury. Brittany, part of ancient Armorica, meaning coastal area, was conquered by Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars. Brittany got its present name when it was settled by Britons whom the Anglo-Saxons had driven from the British Isles.
Local Drinks Include Cider and Muscadet
Gathering windfall apples in the autumn is essential for taking to the cider presses scattered all around. Sweet and hard cider is made and is the usual drink of choice at local gatherings. Muscadet, the one fine white wine, is also popular. As it does not age well, it is drunk young. It is refreshing, and as it goes with practically everything, it is not unusual for Bretons to drink it before, during and after a meal. Bon appetit!