Last October, I hiked a good part of the Sentier des Douaniers, the winding trail that traces the coast of Brittany. Just last week I hiked another part of the trail, the eventual goal being to hike the entire Breton “peninsula”.
The Sentier des Douaniers was once trod by customs agents on the alert for contraband. Today, the region has turned it into the GR 34, one of France’s marvelously husbanded hiking trails. Mostly high above the roiling seas, the GR 34 weaves up and down along the shore so that sometimes you’re walking on a sandy beach, or crawling over upended boulders at low tide, the salty water bubbling near your feet, or climbing craggy trails to vistas that open up the entire ocean world. It’s actually the English Channel where we were in the Finistère, but a little imagination goes a long way!
The hiking couldn’t be better, a perfect mix of comfortable and challenge as one clambers up and down. Brittany is a very Catholic region and as you walk you come across chapels and crosses, all carved from the local granite, each taken care of and either filled with or surrounded by fresh flowers. And then there are the flowers that line all the trails and fill all the gardens. Simply incredible. Once the day is done, sitting at a little café on the coast with a local beer in hand, you’ve got the Breton nature to welcome you back. For one only has to spend a bit of time in this remote region to understand that it is different from other parts of France. It is my favorite region not just because I love the sea so much, but because there is something natural, without pretension, and generous about the landscape, the architecture, the people one meets.
Culinarily speaking, Brittany hearkens to the sea. There are oysters and, in season, sea scallops; monkfish (lotte) and pollack (lieu), cuttlefish with its big ink sacks and curly tentacles and, depending on the season, abundant langoustines and sardines. Blended with all of this is the humble galette, what we might mistakenly call a crepe, made with buckwheat flour. This lacy confection is the culinary symbol of Brittany since ancient times, when no wheat grew in the region’s poor soil, only the seed of the buckwheat. The seed is called Sarrasin because some legends have it coming to France with the Arabs, the Saracens. It’s also called blé noir, black wheat, though it’s far from being a wheat since it’s a member of the rhubarb family.
Botany and history aside, buckwheat makes the most delicious basis for a meal, the galette often being called the “bread of Brittany”. The best recipe is simplest – just an egg, some water, and some buckwheat flour left to stand for a bit before being spread across a cast-iron griddle – a billig, in Breton – that has been amply greased with clarified butter. Once flipped it was traditionally topped with an egg, some cheese, some ham, a sausage…simple ingredients every farmer had on hand. Today, fillings are much enriched. One of my favorites is freshly cooked spinach, an egg, and a dollop of crème fraiche.
There is much to eat in Brittany besides seafood and galette. It produces most of Europe’s cauliflower and artichokes. Thanks to greenhouses and ample sun, Brittany is a major producer of cherry tomatoes, baby vegetables, herb sprouts, and potatoes. All of this is good to know. But what is really good about Brittany is the sea air which leaves you drunk with health, the ready smiles, the Celtic music wafting through the air on market day, and the sheer wild beauty of this region of mariners and gardeners.
Here is a perfect recipe for Galette au Ble Noir!