French Travel Diary #13: Our Final, Sunny Days in Brittany
Last month, we said goodbye to our home of 12 years in Brittany. It was bittersweet and emotional, but I was very lucky to visit not once, but twice to soak up the summer sun in one of my favourite places to visit. The second trip, arriving on the hottest day of the year was a flying visit to host a late night barbecue on the hottest day of the year, to help pack up the house and to attend the French-leg of my best friends wedding in a nearby chateau, but at the beginning of July, during the same week we always had our family holiday in Brittany when I was still at school the three of us set off for an indulgent week in the sun visiting all our favourite places one last time, with no idea of when we would next be back with so much more of France still to explore.
We arrived in the heat. We’d had to get up at 3am (!) as that was the only time of day we could get a Channel Tunnel crossing to accommodate our trailer we were using to transport some of the bulkier furniture home, so unusually we had time to go for lunch. We went for an old favourite so we could sit outside. The restaurant inside Hotel du Chateau on the lake in Combourg is a bit crap inside and the food can be a bit fancy, but if it is summertime, there is nowhere nicer in town to sit outside under the wisteria to get the much simpler, and much tastier plat du jour, which was our favourite entrecote steak that day. Alongside a nice bottle of Cote de Provence (along with another bottle of fizz once we got home) it was the perfect, chilled start to the trip, in spite of the ungodly start much earlier in the morning!
We usually arrive on a Friday, in time to do a food shop before the weekend spent relaxing at the house. It passed in a haze of rose wine, barbecues and beautiful tomato salads made with stunning, beefy heirlooms, with every moment possibly spent outside. I devoured my reading list, starting with Nigel Slater’s Toast it became the trip of the food memoir, with Rick Stein’s Under a Mackerel Sky, and Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence following quickly after. The highlight was Felicity Cloake’s incredible new book One More Croissant For The Road chronicling her cycle trip around France seeking out the best regional specialities – and croissants – as she went. It was particularly poignant reading about her Brittany leg in search of my favourite Cancale oysters just down the road. I’m planning a post detailing all the best books I’ve read this summer for September where I’ll talk a bit more about all of these books, but as there are a few weeks left of the holidays, go get / download a copy of One More Croissant For The Road if you’re still in search of the perfect holiday read.
On Monday we headed back into Combourg again for lunch, catching the end of their weekly market. Le Relais des Princes was one of the first places we started regularly eating at in town when we first arrived. It’s changed hands now and is more fine food focused than the classic creperie we remember, but I have happy memories of eating big bowls of Moules Mariner in front of the fire with my parents, practicing my then school girl French vocab with the old owner who would not let you have a table if you did not make an effort with the language, and going out for dinner there with my late grandparents on their only trip together with us to Brittany, just a few days after I’d left school, and a few weeks before my grandmother died.
You want to go there for the plat du jour, which is much better value than everything else on the menu, and will provide you with some outstanding dishes. While it was slightly at odds with the heat outside, after a fantastic, rustic country pate served with homemade pickles I had the very best pork chop I’ve ever eaten, served with a red wine sauce, mashed potatoes, and a very French attitude towards greenery. It was plump and tender, crisp in all the right places. I was savouring every bite. I’m not a massive pork eater but it is what Brittany do best, and this was a real treat. The pain perdu served afterwards was also rather excellent.
When we were still doing up the house, our days were punctuated from the sounds of chiselling and an angle grinder, sculpting great hunks of marble into sculpture over the cornfield, and across from our house. After a year or so, from my parents upstairs bedroom window we could see a beautiful horse taking shape, along with a whole host of characters who came and went. After meeting the sculpture at a local drinks party a few months before, as part of my ‘goodbye tour’ I crossed the road and finally asked to see his collection. Some of the details were breathtaking, and I’m very sad to have left that horse, and his other sculpted friends behind.
Probably my favourite place to visit is Cancale and the famous oyster market overlooking the oyster beds – they’re among my favourite things to eat, and I was so incredibly lucky to have the oyster capital of France right there on our doorstep. Okay, so I’m still the only person in my family who likes them so I’ve still not been able to sit on the harbour wall with a freshly shucked tray (there is now a little van parked under the pier serving ice cold wine to go with) so that remains on my bucket list. There are still plenty of oysters available up and down the main promenade in the local seafood restaurants. Lunch was a set menu that involved all my favourites, Cancale No. 3 oysters (they’re classed by size, these are the ones you’d be most familiar with) followed by moules mariner avec frites, and a perfect crepe, drizzled with local salted butter caramel sauce.
The final stop on our culinary tour took us to Creperie de la Duchesse Anne in Fougères, where we sat in the courtyard in front of the castle enjoying galettes (local, savoury buckwheat pancakes) stuffed with creamed leeks and local scallops (my Mum and I’s favourite) and ham and local potatoes for my Dad, which was absolutely mouthwatering. Fougères is a beautiful place to explore in the area and the castle is simply fascinating, well worth an afternoon exploring – there are also beautiful gardens to walk through it you park in the town above.
I love Brittany – I will always love Brittany, and while I’m excited to explore more of France (we’ve already got another family trip to a totally new region planned) there will always be a bit of my favourite region in my cooking and my writing forever. It feels strange – this is the first time my family has not had a French home since before I was born, but I still love and adore the country, French food and French landscapes. Here is to my next French adventure!