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Rule, Bretagne

[1]

The first French oysters I ever ate, pre-degustation

People, I was serious when, in my big post-France entry [2], I said I had gone berserk for French oysters. Really and truly, if you love oysters, to eat the ones from France — which I’d never had before this trip — is a glorious, never-to-be-missed experience. I loved it so much that I’m thinking about saving up to take a trip to Brittany, to eat those sacred bivalve closer to their source. Check out this LA Times piece about going on the oyster trail in Brittany [3]. Excerpt:

I discovered the supremacy of Brittany oysters a decade ago on a three-day trek from St.-Malo to the great gothic monastery of Mont-St.-Michel. Along the way I stopped in the village of Cancale where every waterfront restaurant had an oyster-on-the-half-shell special.

I let the first Cancale puddle on my tongue, husky with the taste of iodine and ocean floor, before releasing it down my throat, a sensory experience completely unlike ordinary eating. After I polished off the rest I sat looking over the wide, flat bay and then ordered another dozen. I could have eaten more, though perhaps not as many as the 19th century Englishman who must have set a record by consuming 12 dozen, washed down by 12 glasses of Champagne, while the clock was striking 12, according to M.F.K. Fisher in her small 1941 classic “Consider the Oyster.”

Take a look at more about oyster eating and culture in Brittany [4]. I love to eat when I travel, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually seriously thought about a vacation built around gastronomy. Any of you readers ever been to Brittany? Tell me about it.

I’ve been to Holy Rome, and I’ve been to Holy Jerusalem. Next, I’ll go to Holy Cancale.

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22 Comments To "Rule, Bretagne"

#1 Comment By Chris On April 17, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

The people of Brittany are not actually French and Brittany is not really France. It was formerly an independent Celtic kingdom and then a duchy before being incorporated into the French kingdom. Many of the native Bretons speak a celtic language akin to Cornish or Welsh. You can think of Brittany as a Celtic appendage glued onto the Latinate body of France. Of course, as everyone knows everything Celtic is cool!

#2 Comment By Erin Manning On April 17, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

I think gastronomic travel is as good a reason as any!

That said, Rod, I’m afraid I lack the theology and geometry to appreciate raw oysters, which look, as a comedian said long ago, like something that fell out of an ox’s nose. Luckily I’m allergic to them so I don’t ever have to get past the revulsion of their appearance in order to taste them…

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 17, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

I’ve never been to Brittany.

I like oyster stew, fried oysters, and scalloped oysters. But I’ve never developed a taste for raw oysters. It just feels like a puddle of slime in my mouth.

#4 Comment By Richard On April 17, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

Rod –

I could send you pictures, and could send you a list of recomemnded destinations. Here’s how my wife and I feel about Brittany: a trip solely to Brittany would justify a plane ticket across the Atlantic – and that’s taking nothing away from the rest of France. Brittany is just that beautiful, and that special. If you’re hanging out in the vicinity of Cancalle oysters, consider a stay slightly inland in the walled village of Dinan. Also – and you can thank me later – if you’re any kind of a connoisseur of spirits, Eddu, the Breton single malt made with ble noir (buckwheat), is a delight that you can not yet find on this side of the Atlantic. Finally, we haven’t even talked about music. Brittany is ethnically Celtic, and the Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy has a section toward the end with Breton music recommendations. Bottom line: Brittany is magical. Second bottom line: don’t go without Julie. you have been warned!

Richard

#5 Comment By KMT On April 17, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

Sorry, but oysters look like phlegm.

#6 Comment By CDK On April 17, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

This is the most significant thing you have written.

Oysters–if I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.

#7 Comment By Tanya On April 17, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

Rod, I have not yet been to Brittany, though it is in the plan for the next scheduled trip to France. The original reason was due to my family geneology which we have traced back to St. Malo. Now, however, I mean to go for the oysters as well!

#8 Comment By scotch meg On April 17, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

Cancale… brings back memories. We went to Bretagne on our honeymoon (thanks to my dad’s frequent flyer miles). What I remember best about the food is not oysters but mussels, which were delectable. My husband won’t eat them here. And cheese. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so we bought cheese, sausages, and bread most days for lunch.

My best memory is of a “fete” of blue fishnets at Concarneau. And of a small church called “Saint-Ronan” in a town of the same name, where we bought a cross which is still in our bedroom. And of driving through La Balle, where we had intended to go to the beach, because of threatening clouds.

If you can drive, it is (or was) a lovely drive along the coast, all the way around the peninsula. We didn’t get into the center at all. The people were tremendously friendly, even in August. I would love to return, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Go, enjoy.

#9 Comment By Mike On April 17, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

Had oysters in season last fall in Normandy near st michel. Really fine. Fun to see so many oysters at the local markets, like in Beaune. .Kumamoto oysters rock though.

#10 Comment By Rob On April 17, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

A culinary philistine here. Explain something to me: how are French oysters different and superior to, say, American oysters? Correct me if I’m wrong, but oysters on the half shell–delicious, by the way–are simply oysters on the half shell. And that’s it. There’s little if any culinary skill involved in preparing them. Assuming the ingredient (singular, not plural) is of sufficient quality–which requires a small remove from the sea, of course–I fail to conceive how French oysters would be intrinsically superior to any other oysters. Indeed, on what grounds are they even labeled “French” oysters beyond the simple fact that you were eating them in France? Is there a different species of oyster involved? Or is this about the “experience”: there is some ineffable quality about eating raw oysters in a cafe in Paris that is better than eating them in Boston, even though the taste is technically identical?

Please explain!

#11 Comment By Rod Dreher On April 17, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

A culinary philistine here. Explain something to me: how are French oysters different and superior to, say, American oysters? Correct me if I’m wrong, but oysters on the half shell–delicious, by the way–are simply oysters on the half shell. And that’s it.

No, no, no. There are many different types of oyster. Oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are quite different in look and taste from oysters from the East Coast. I grew up with Gulf oysters, which are bigger and less intensely flavored than the oysters you get back East. I don’t know enough to explain why this is, but I would suppose it has to do with the species of oyster, as well as local conditions (e.g., warm Gulf waters, versus cold north Atlantic waters). I prefer East Coast oysters to the kind I grew up with, simply because they taste so much more briny and coppery. But these oysters from Brittany I had over in France — man, they were from another universe. I can’t explain why they are more intensely flavored — I mean, to what extent it has to do with the local conditions where they are raised, and to what extent it has to do with the species of oyster (there are many, just in France). But the proof is in the tasting. I hope you get to see for yourself one day.

#12 Comment By Sands On April 17, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

Well, it looks like you’ll never have to pop the little blue pill.

#13 Comment By MH – secular misanthropist On April 17, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

In New England alone there are several varieties of oysters. Wellfleet oysters are generally considered the best.

#14 Comment By Joanna On April 17, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

Japan and Brittany via for my top 1st & 2nd travel destinations. Seriously rod Dreher International Gastrotravel.

#15 Comment By Leapold On April 17, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

Oh, I have been to Brittany–to the enchanting Côtes-d’Armor region. I was doing research on Charles Lindbergh’s connection to the area. In 1938 he and his wife, Anne, purchased the tiny private island of Illiec, where they made their home in its primitive stone manor house for a few brief months, never to live there again. The island is currently owned by the champagne-producing Heidsieck family and they invited me to visit. It was my first trip to France and I was treated to this wonderful hours-long luncheon, course after unpretentious course, and innumerable glasses of champagne.

Brittany is magical, especially for someone who comes from an Upper Mississippi River Valley town. I could easily understand Lindbergh’s fascination with the area. Summer in Minnesota can be a sodden affair; the humid air simply melds with the mud of the river. There’s no contrast–nothing as dramatic as the rocks and sea of the Brittany coast, the ever- changing tides and the pre-historic megaliths. It’s a landscape that invigorates the imagination and I am longing to return. Until then, reading has to suffice.

But as for oysters, I never had one, not until last month, on a visit to St. George Island, Florida. I was half-dead from a long dull winter, decided to try an oyster and almost cried for . I was glad their pleasures had been withheld from me until just the moment that I needed them. I felt re-born. Must go back and re-read “Consider the Oyster”.

#16 Comment By Nate On April 17, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

When my two-year-old sees something he likes in a picture, like a toy or some such thing, he grabs for it and says, “Off!” in hopes that it will come off the page and materialize in his hands.
Alas, it never works. I admire his effort, though.

So I read this post and see that pic, and I think it’s worth a try.

“Off! Off! Off!”

Sigh.

#17 Comment By Joanna On April 17, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

Rod,

If you haven’t seen it “No Reservations- Brittany” is well worth whatever the heck the Tunes store is asking for it. I hope to go in a year or two. Just to sit on a wharf there for an hour or so and find out what “glasz” is for myself.

#18 Comment By Lori S On April 17, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

Stupid question: do you chew them or swallow them whole? I had raw oysters once and could not get past the texture of eating “innards”. Had to swallow them whole to get them down. I had the same reaction to escargot.

Also, this reminds me something my husband’s grandmother once told me. She was from a fishing family in Virginia and she grew up eating oysters on the boat, just minutes out of the water. She found them inedible if they were even slightly older.

#19 Comment By Camp Topisaw On April 18, 2012 @ 8:45 am

Rod, I have in my hand a small book called The Oysters of Locmariaquer that I will give to you the next time I see you. As the book cover says, it is a “fascinating account of how Belon oysters are cultivated and an excursion into the the history, myths and legends of Brittany.” You will love it.

#20 Comment By Leapold On April 18, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

Nate, he should try flicking it away, like on an ipad. (I saw a baby once, doing that to a magazine. He was so puzzled by his lack of success.)

#21 Comment By Justin On April 18, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

Rod,
About five years ago, my parents and I were visiting my sister in Paris, who was studying abroad at the moment. My sister and I had an epic, vodka-saturated night at a silly American bar called the Crazy Violin or something like that. The next day, we had planned to go to a small town on the Brittany coast to visit some old neighbors and I was BRUTALLY hungover. I mean, the worst hangover in my life. I recall traveling over bumpy roads and doing everything I could not to projectile vomit over our hosts’ car. I had to abandon our hosts’ beautifully set lunch to empty my stomach — as quietly as possible — into their toilet. Finally, we ended up going to a fair, at which were piles of huitres de Bretagne (sp?), set so proudly in that seaweed. Well, I tell you: I had half-dozen oysters and I seriously felt the heavy fog of my hangover instantly lift. Something about the brine, the elemental force of those oysters restored life to me — and let me enjoy the rest of that beautiful day on the coast. So drink up your Chablis and let oysters cure your hangover!

#22 Comment By economista On April 19, 2012 @ 9:07 am

Hey Rod,

My husband and I went to Bretagne in early August of last year while we were working in Vienna for the summer. We don’t have a ton of money, so we flew into Beauvais Airport on a cheap Slovakian airline, rented a small car and first drove to Bayeux to see the Bayeux Tapestry (which was actually pretty cool), then continued to Mont Sant-Michel and St Malo, as well as a bunch of little cities on the coast and to the south whose names are escaping me now.

In terms of eating… I wish we could have eaten more seafood but the budget wasn’t permitting it. Like some of the other more frugal travellers, we had tons of fun with the bread, cheese, meats, and drinks in the local markets. Anything labeled “authentic” or “traditional” tended to taste like it had been left in a barn for a week… I suppose I could learn to appreciate ham that smells like doo-doo and fermented apple cider that tastes slightly off; it was just a little unexpected (even more so than your standard stinky French cheese).

We brought back a bunch of fun goodies as presents – sea salt caramels, shortbread cookies, both made with local butter and grey salt; and 2-kilo bags of the same salt that would cost who-knows-what Stateside but were the same price as regular salt there. I’ve been cooking with that salt this spring and it really gives food a distinctive flavor. Yum! I could have spent two weeks exploring the region. But perhaps not two weeks listening to Radio Brezh… we gave it a couple of hours but couldn’t take any more bagpipes past that.