Fresh little cornichons ready for pickling, at the market:
Fresh little cornichons ready for pickling, at the market:
When you think of ‘take-out’, France perhaps isn’t the first culture that comes to mind.
The concept to me seems so American; pick up the phone or walk to the corner, grab something to eat, bring it home and eat it in front of the television.
Nice and quick…and no dishes!
In spite of what you might think, France has plenty of take-out food shops, called traiteurs. These specialty shops are loaded with tempting things to eat: roasted and smoked meats, a few carefully-selected cheeses, vegetable salads, poached and cured fish, and of course, terrines and pâtes.
Although I don’t usually visit the traiteur, since I like to cook for myself and friends, i was in serious pursuit of Kig ha Farz, a Breton curiosity that’s made by making a gargantuan ‘dumpling’ of buckwheat flour, eggs, butter, and milk or cream, stirring them together and simmering the whole thing in a special linen sack (and yes, I bought one in Brittany to make this in the future.)
After the giant dumpling is cooked, the bag is rolled and rolled until the dumpling’s been broken up into tiny, couscous-like pieces. It’s heaped onto a plate and served with smoked bacon or lard, as they call it in France. Although I’ve seen recipes that call for vegetables served alongside, no one seemed to be requesting any…and there didn’t seem to be any on offer.
After hearing about Kig ha Farz for years, I was very curious and eager to try it. Acting on a tip from a friend’s Breton mother, I found one of the few remaining places in the world that still makes Kig ha Farz…and they make it only on Wednesdays.
Sure enough, when I arrived, there was a huge mob barely forming a line…and the frantic, but cheerful saleswomen were spooning Kig ha Farz into take-out barquettes as fast as they could (and most couldn’t resist picking and eating little morsels as they scooped. I can’t say I blame them…I’d do the same, if no one was watching. Take that to those of you who think I’m too uptight about food sanitation!)
Sporting a seriously-treacherous butcher’s knife, only then would the crowd part just long enough for them to hack off a slab of smoked bacon, wrap it in butcher-paper, and send you on your way. Once I was lucky to escape (alive), I went back to the house and wolfed down a plate of Kig ha Farz…then immediately had seconds, giving little to the thought that in just a few hours I’d have to don a swimsuit to return to the beach.
And the little French swimsuits leave no room for imagination, or expansion, caused by too much Kig ha Farz and lard.
Surely the most well-known take-away treats in Brittany are crêpes, which are impossible to avoid no matter where you go. I woke extra-early one morning to scour a local Vide-Grenier (similar to a flea market, but more like a large, free-form garage sale.) There I scored a stack sumptuous, unused vintage French linen sheets (for about the price of one French linen pillowcase in the US) from a rather nasty woman…an encounter which would make a visit to the oral surgeon seem pleasurable.
Thankfully there were dilligent crêpemakers there, swirling the eggy batter over the hot griddle, dotting them with salty butter and a dusting of crunchy sugar, passing off the warm, folded crêpes to hungry and beat-upon shoppers….aka: moi!.
Later in the day, it was back to the traiteur and to make a picnic for the beach.
It was a perfectly clear day, blue sky, delicious food and red wine…gentle waves lapping as I fell asleep in the warm sand…where I dreamed of many future nights, dozing away in my cozy bed between luxurious, hard-won linen sheets…with a big, round tummy…full of Kig ha Farz!
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Of all the regions in France, one of the most peculiar is Brittany. The cuisine is hearty, earthy, and dynamic…like the terrain…
The coastline is a virtual lunar landscape of jutting rock formations, with pristine beaches tucked in between. Consequently, upper Brittany is somewhat remote and not a popular tourist destination. Most of my days began at a almost-deserted beach with a dip in a frigid, clear water, and finished at a lively crêperie, picking through a mound of moules frites, steaming-hot mussels simmered with white wine and local shallots, served with a overly-generous pile of frites that I thought I’d never be able to finish. (But of course, I always did…mustn’t be rude.)
Ah, summer vacation in Brittany. There’s not much to do here except swim in the chilly water, and eat seafood, red onions (more about them in a later post), and…the delicious salted butter.
Unlike the rest of France, the Bretons don’t eat much cheese…in fact, there’s no local cheeses that I can think of that are produced there and I didn’t see one fromagerie in ten days. But they make up for it by offering up lots of butter, which they’re justifiably famous for. When you compliment a local pastry shop or restaurant on their cuisine, they will invariably respond proudly, “C’est la buerre de Bretagne!”
There’s also not so much wine wine consumed either, since the locals drink plenty of sparkling, lightly-alcoholic apple cider. A fizzy bottle is popped open before each meal and served in a traditional bolées, similar to a squat coffee cup with a handle.
But back the butter—it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Breton butter is notable since it’s almost always flecked with large, coarse grains of salt that crunch when you bite into them. I spread some on my toast each morning before drizzling it with bitter chestnut honey. Much of the salt used is harvested on ponds and marshes in the Guérande, where the famed fleur de sel is harvested as well. And unlike the rest of the country, Bretons often butter their bread, which is never done elsewhere in France except with oysters, which are customarily served with buttered rye bread, pain de seigle. (So next time you’re in Paris and that waiter gives you a disapproving sneer when you ask for butter, tell him you’re from Brittany.)
Naturally much of this butter makes its way into buckwheat crêpes, or galettes de blé noir (when made with buckwheat flour, or blé noir, they’re normally called galettes rather than crêpes. You can buy crêpes at most of the local pastry shops, and if you’re lucky, they’re still warm.
One night I picked up a stack and for simple dessert, I heated a bottle of hard apple cider in a skillet, added a handful of unrefined cassonade sugar, a modest knob of Breton salted butter and some delicious prunes from Gascony. Once the cider was sweet and syrupy, I added some folded crêpes, a pour of Calvados, and voila!
Perhaps the most famous dessert of the region is the Far Breton. Far is the Breton word for ‘custard’, and the Far Breton is remarkably similar to a custard tart sans the crust. Like everything, there are good versions, and not-so-good versions (like pretzels on the streets of Manhattan). You’ll find Far Breton everywhere in Brittany; in supermarkets, outdoor markets, restaurants, and pastry shops. Like flan in Paris (which is a wedge of custard tart, and not the inverted caramel custard that many of us are used to,) a slab of Far Breton with prunes is often a mid-afternoons snack, or le goûter for hungry folks.
Although I find most of them rather dense and heavy, I knew that if I tried as many as possible like Goldilock’s, I would certainaly find the version that was “just right”. And sure enough, the best was from a pastry shop in Lesnevin called Labbé, a few steps off the main square.
Another extraordinary treat is the Kouign amann, which is pronounced (and spelled) a few different ways, depending on your accent. I learned to say it by rhyming Kouign with the word schwing!, from Wayne’s World…which I’ve tried to explain with a sharp thrust of my hips to French people but it doesn’t seem to translate very well, and people were looking at me funny, so I gave up.
A friend who visited Brittany once wrote me and said, “A stick of butter would seem light in comparison!..” when describing his first encounter withKouign amann. And indeed, the word amann is the Breton word for butter.
I had to try one from several bakeries, since it’s one of my favorite desserts: layers of flaky pastry baked with plenty of salted butter and sugar, until it’s all dark, crisp, and caramelized? Bring it on. Sometimes they’ll sell it by the slab at outdoor markets, and they slice off a hunk for you and sell it by the kilo. But the best thing I ate all week was…
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Here I was surrounded by fabulous buttery creations, but then I discovered strawberries from Plougastel. But honestly, these were the best strawberries I’ve ever had. Although usually I judge fruit based on it’s aroma before I buy (and these had little smell), these looked so ruby-red and glistening, that I just had to try them. Each one was sweet-sweet-sweet! Each was juicy with flavor, like a soft piece of sweet strawberry candy and deep red all the way through. I’ve never had strawberries like that before, although I’ve seen them in the markets in Paris, they never looked so appealing as they did at that village fruit market in Brittany.
Related Links and Posts
Le Bateau en chocolat (Georges Larnicol launches a chocolate boat, video)
I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and figured I’d ask “Is it just me?…What would you do?”
Let’s say you’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner. Yum.
You arrive and they’re preparing the food. There’s piles of fresh produce and meat on the counter, ready to be whipped up into something magical and tasty. Vibrant tomatoes, leafy greens, juicy meat ready to be roasted….hmmmm.
Can you practically taste it?
As you sip your glass of red wine, you watch and chat with your host as they prepare dinner.
They wash the raw chicken or pork under running water in the kitchen sink. Afterwards a quick wipe their hands (uh oh, you begin to think…no soap!…not to mention they’re going to use that kitchen towel again and again and again…).
Then they fill the sink with water to wash the lettuce…without cleaning it out!
Or what if they’re making a salad, and take the knife they’ve just used to cut up the uncooked pork sausage?
Without wiping the knife, they begin slicing the cucumbers and tomatoes for the salad, tossing it all together, then triumphantly setting it down on the table.
I mean, Hello?
Since you’re a extremely polite and gracious guest, like I am, (and believe me, no one’s allergic to lettuce or cucumbers…so forget that one.)
I mean, it’s not like you can just eat around the salmonella, can you?
…what do you do?
The French predilection of blowing things out of proportion is nowhere more evident than in the highly detailed, extraordinary Michelin maps, which cover every nook, cranny, crevice and petit village in France. And like many things French, once you figure out how to work within the ‘system’, in this case an unwieldingly large map that’s impossible to unfurl in the car, it works better than anything else it the world.
(Unless you’re trying to renew your French visa. Then you realize there’s absolutely no system to work within…)
But even the most astute scholar of la langue française would have trouble giving concise verbal directions to his French driver navigating the villages of Brittany. Most have the disturbing habit of names that have been roughly translated from an ancient, almost-forgotten language.
Try reeling off these names while giving directions…
….Ploudaniel, Plougastel, Plougerneau, Plouneour-Trez, Plougasnou, and Ploubezre, Ploubazenec, Ploumillau…
Still, for me, driving gives me the opportunity to visit my favorite food hot-spots in France. And in case you think all the food in France is ‘gourmet’, it ain’t.
(So please don’t ask me anymore about that silliness Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, since it will soon become obvious to you that ‘French Women Don’t Do Any Driving On les Autoroutes‘.)
So before I write beautiful, poetic essays accompanied by lavish photos of rich, buttery, golden desserts from Brittany, I thought I’d share my absolute favorite food destinations in France with you: Le Auto Boutique.
And the best of the worst is found at the Auto Boutique, inviting, ultra-modern structures that line the autoroutes of France, where you can refuel your car, and refuel yourself.
Each Auto Boutique is like a mini-village. Some sell fleur de sel and foie gras (imagine finding those at your local 7-11!), other times I’ve seen local saucisson and regional wines amongst the offerings.
Although the majority of drivers stop for a cigarette and café, there’s plenty of other options beside vending machine café express and soupe de legumes.
But I first fell in love with les Auto Boutiques when I spotted this:
The ouef dur mayonnaise.
It’s one of the classic bistro entrées. Here it’s been reduced to its most simple, most minimalist elements: just an egg, just a packet of mayonnaise.
It reminds me of something that you might be served at El Bulli, but here you can have it for the astonishingly low-price of only 1.80€.
Remember you saw it here first.
And of course, you’ll be able to choose something from the staggering display of Les sandwiches.
Once again, don’t let the fancy packaging fool you. Oh-la-la!…Le jambon fromage? That’s ham & cheese, pal.
But every once in a while, you’ll find something exotic, something wild and Provençal, like a Tapenade sandwich…
Ok, that plastic-wrapped triangle is about as authentic and ‘wild and Provençal’ as a Peter Mayle novel-ette about some dreary English bloke who leads a dreary life of corporate drudgery in London but receives a mysterious inheritance of a house in Provence so he moves to Provence, learns to make wine, befriends his charming neighbor and has hilarious adventures borrowing his tractor, and watches sunsets daily with a glass of rosé and a game of boules…and of course, further hi-jinks ensue when he finds a local, rosy-cheeked contractor to…blah blah blah….
Before you toss your nose up in the air, for the more sophisticated amongst yourselves, you’ll find les tartes, including the people-pleasin’ Quiche Lorraine.
So it’s 5am, and I’m fueled up on café express (the French say, “It’s not the coffee you take after dinner that keeps you awake, it’s the one you have at 5 o’clock”…and I have to admit, they’re right.)
Onward through Brittany….
Back to Paris, after 10 days in the summer sun (and occasional drizzle) of Brittany.
I’ve had enough butter to last me quite a while, in buttery buckwheat crêpes, buttery caramelized Kouign Amann, butter-rich Far Breton, and Kik ha farz…drizzled with butter.
In the next few days, between exercising, I’ll be adding photos and stories about all the treats…
These are pêche plat, or ‘flat peaches’…for obvious reasons!
They’re white-fleshed little peaches with tiny pits and are grown in the US as well, where they’re often called Donut® or Saturn peaches.
Last week in Paris I saw flat nectarines. Is this a trend?
What’s next…flat watermelons? Flat blueberries?
These are the best fruit in the world: Reine Claude plums.
Don’t let the dull green skin fool you; these are the sweetest fruits to be found. There’s similar green plums in France, but le vrai Reine Claude plums are only grown in Moissac, a town close to Toulouse. I eat them by the bagful, like candy, during their brief but productive in season.
Fresh hazelnuts, still on their pods. I pick them right off the trees and crack them open. Last year I did a dinner with San Francisco chef Traci des Jardins, who shaved slices the soft, almost-crisp nuts over a delicous Celery Root Soup, which made our guests swoon. No wonder she beat the shorts off that Italian chef from New York.
At the market in the Norman village of Louviers, I found these lovely rounds of chèvre. I bought three…but left them behind in someone’s refrigerator so I never got to taste them!
Loaves of country bread at the market.
Are these the French version of Peeps™?
My main reason for heading to Normandy this weekend was to celebrate Susan’s birthday and we invited some of her best friends. We spent the evening grilling corn on the cob and travers du porc (pork ribs) that I bought at Tang Frères in Paris’ Chinatown.
We finished the evening with a sky-high Devils Food Cake that I made along with Homemade Malted Milk Ice cream. Très americain…but our French friends lapped it up it as fast as us Americans!
The ornate Gothic church directly across from her home provided a dramatic backdrop as the summer sun went down.
1. You buy clothing, not based on style or fashion, but because the texture and color of the fabric will make new and interesting backgrounds for your food shots.
2. You choose routes through town based on what’s to eat or photograph along the way in lieu of the most direct path.
3. You find the only friends that’ll talk to you are other food bloggers…since you don’t have anything to talk about but your food blog.
4. Before heading out to dinner, you make sure you have your camera instead of remembering your wallet or purse.
5. You find yourself having amazing relationships with people in far-away places like Jakarta, Tasmania, and Scotland, ignoring your friends who live right in the same neighborhood.
6. You make dinner reservations not according to who has the best food, but which dining room has the best natural lighting.
7. At the market, the vendors see you coming and instinctively begin re-arranging their produce in anticipation of your arrival.
8. When foodies talk about Mario, Rachel, Florence, and Alton, you have no idea who they’re talking about.
But you know instantly who Adam, Heidi, Pim, and The Food Whore are.
9. You’ve always been told that normal people should keep “those kinds of thoughts” to themselves.
But you ignore it, and hit POST ENTRY anyways.
10. Dinner isn’t ready until it’s gone through Photoshop™.
So who’s ready for vacation?
Be back soon…