From Le Mont St. Michel, we drove into Brittany, the northwest region of France. Dianne has been here before and she talked about it glowingly for years: the menhirs and dolmans, the cider, the Breton culture, and of course, the seafood. What’s cool is that Bretons have maintained their own identity. And within Brittany, San Malo was the biggest rebel, at one point establishing a semi-independent republic. That was our destination.
Along the way we enjoyed the windswept coast. We saw abandoned windmills, some with their arms removed and renovated into cottages. The wind has now blown in a new industry: go-cart sailing.
Much of what we saw while in the San Malo area focused on the sea. In nearby Concale, the church’s side altar commemorated those who died at sea and the stained-glass windows reminded us that Jesus’ disciples were fishermen.
Here the tides strand boats on riverbanks and beaches. In the 90 minutes that we explored Concale, the tide came in and set them afloat again.
But resourceful Bretons have another way to bridge the gap by using boats that also drive on land. The one we saw was filled with shellfish. At this point, I was not yet partaking of shellfish delicacies.
Brittany was independent of France longer than other outlying areas. The land was settled by British Celts as early as 500 BCE, thus the name, Brittany, or little Britain. Some locals still speak a form of Gallic. During Britany’s Golden Age, (1532 – 1676), San Malo was the main port, regularly serving 3000 boats. Excellent seamen, they fished for cod in the waters of Newfoundland, and sold the cod in Spain and Italy. The San Malo import industry traded with the Middle East, the Pacific and the West Indies.
When Bretons began to lose their sovereignty to France, they demanded and secured many rights. But their independence was finally curtailed in 1631 when Cardinal Richelieu took over as governor, not that he spent any time there. Bretons rebelled in 1675. What started as a spontaneous revolt in several Breton cities turned into organized troops of 10,000 Bretons, finally quashed by the King’s troops. This desire for independence is still evident.
Later (1688 – 1713), around 50 pirate ships operated out of the San Malo port, authorized, but not really controlled by, the King. This “industry” developed because of the trade wars between France and England. It suited these pirates to support the King’s needs, but they did it on their own terms. As could be expected, pirate flags festooned shop windows and a large “pirate” ship sat in the harbor.
We were lucky to find a flat in the old walled portion of the city. Surrounded by ramparts, it is a warren of cobbled streets, some of which allow cars one-way access. We attempted to drop our luggage at the flat before finding parking outside the walls. But after a frustrating 40 minutes of do-not-enter signs and streets clogged with shoppers, “sidewalk” sales, and tourists, we gave up. What were we thinking?
The ramparts provided a wonderful perch to view the sea. Despite the brisk and sometimes rainy weather, people played in the sand, walked the piers, watched seagull acrobatics, and even swam. Along the beach, we saw what looked like a saltwater swimming pool, replenished by the sea. It retained the water when the tide went out and provided a safe swimming area.
Just as fascinating was the old city. Locals raised gardens on rooftops. Street life was lively. Musicians played along the ramparts and in the streets, including an organ grinder who sang opera and taught young would-be performers.
I love shopping for Breton foods in the local shops. Bretons make cider, ranging from non-alcoholic to a distilled version called Calvados from the many apples grown in the region. Other favorites are artisanal soup (so many choices; we tried the langoustine), salted caramels (and salted caramel sauce, cookies, even liquor); Breton gateau in flavors of raspberry, prune and caramel; local yogurt sold in glass jars; and the breads (oh the daily fresh breads!) with our favorite batards and croissants. Produce is still offered in thin bentwood cartons. We found the well-loved Madelaine cookies in the shape of scallop shells (representing Mary Magdalene). Breton butter is supposed to be the best. Luscious, juicy pears are currently in season.
And then there is the locally made salt, ranging from dirty with bits of seaweed and sand, to gray, to white, to flavored with herbs.
I can’t say we bought/ate all of these wonderful offerings, but we are cooking in our flats and certainly need the “basics.”
As for eating out, creperies abound in San Malo. Buckwheat came into Brittany in the early 1500s. It wasn’t taxed, and peasants could grind it themselves in handmills, avoiding the milling fee. So farmers sold their wheat and rye, and ate their buckwheat, making Breton galettes. Creperies sell both the sweet crepes, and the buckwheat galettes with savory fillings. For my part, you can keep them; the wheat crepes are too sweet and the buckwheat ones don’t fit my mental model for crepes.
But I did find a new love, mussels. I never cared for them, but now I’m obsessed. Dianne had been urging me to try them. I went from dubious to delighted in one meal. Later I tried and loved snails. That’s when I could urge Dianne to try. “Eeww! No way!” All of a sudden, I am feeling somewhat French.
For other essays on our rural France journey, see:
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