While France may be best known for its exquisite pâtisserie creations and extravagant gâteaux, the not-so-humble biscuit deserves some recognition too
Until 16 May, 2021, an exhibition at the Musée d’Histoire de Nantes at the city’s Château des Ducs de Bretagne – LU. Un Siècle d’Innovation (1846-1947) – celebrates the story of the Petit-Beurre biscuit and the Lefèvre-Utile (LU) brand which was founded in the city in 1846. The exhibition celebrates over a century of LU, showing off the largest collection of Lefèvre-Utile objects in France – over 1,500 items telling the story of the brand and its products.
New objects which were acquired in 2018 from a private collection in Paris will be on show for the first time. Using Louis Lefèvre-Utile’s own motto, “to whet appetites, you must begin with the eye”, the innovative advertising and marketing of LU products is the cornerstone of this exhibition, including packaging designs, the famous logo by Raymond Loewy and advertising material such as the intricate Art Nouveau creations by Alphonse Mucha.
LU brand biscuits such as the Petit-Beurre and Petit Écolier have become a household institution in France since their creation all those years ago, but they draw on a well-established tradition of biscuit bakery from across the whole Hexagone. Almost every region has at least one hallmark sweet and crunchy snack, perhaps more homely in form than the artful creations crowding the windows of town centre pâtisseries but just as delicious.
Biscuits in Brittany and Normandy
Those LU biscuits owe their origins to the salt-marshes of the Atlantic coast. Salted butter (and more latterly the now-ubiquitous salted caramel) has long been employed as an ingredient in shortcake-style biscuits. Brittany’s famous Palets Bretons – reputedly invented in 1920 at the Biscuiterie de Pont-Aven by local baker Alexis le Villain, and named Traou Mad (good things) – are a chunkier, airier version of the local thin and crispy butter shortbread Sablés Bretons. Both biscuits owe their teatime allure to their high content of local salted butter – around 20%!
Normandy also has a similar biscuit, again making the most of all the fresh creamy butter available to bakers in the area. One of the longest queues on the Mont Saint-Michel is always that for La Mère Poulard biscuit bakery, while those with a less sweet tooth seek out the equally famous omelette. The biscuit recipe here has remained unchanged since 1888. A visit to the Maison du Biscuit in Sortosville-en-Beaumont gives a glimpse into the sweet story of Normandy biscuit baking, as well as a chance to stock up on the local specialities Palets Normandes and Galettes Normandes, and perhaps a stop at the salon de thé to sample some in situ. Another buttery biscuit base is the Charente, where the crisp golden Broyé du Poitou is often baked on a large (think dinner plate-sized) scale.
Charente, Drôme and Mediterranean biscuits
Away from the obvious dairy areas, and sometimes within them too, flavourings for biscuits take many forms. With the Galette Charentaise, Saintonge in Charente takes the basic buttery shortbread recipe and gives it a slightly softer texture, flavoured with locally grown angelica, while Villebois-Lavalette even celebrates its triangular aniseed-scented Cornuelle every Palm Sunday with an annual Fête de Cornuelle.
Heading south, into Drôme, the curious Suisse de Valance – a shortbread homunculus flavoured with small pieces of candied orange peel and orange blossom – rubs pastry shoulders with the Lunettes de Romans, in Romans-sur-Isère, which resemble Jammie Dodgers with two ‘lunettes’ but whose origins date back to the Middle Ages.
Down by the Mediterranean, the hard orange-blossom flavoured Navettes of Marseille are baked from unyeasted dough, giving them a much longer shelf-life than their buttery northern counterparts. The oldest Navettes bakery in Marseille is the Four des Navettes which sits close to the Abbaye Saint-Victor and has been baking the boat-shaped biscuits continuously since 1781. While enjoyed year-round (often warmed gently to soften them a little) Navettes are particularly associated with the February Fête de la Chandeleur.
Biscuits from eastern France
Eastern France has its fair share of biscuits too. Reims in the Marne département, the heartland of champagne production, has the delicate biscuit rose de Reims. Crispy but spongy at the same time, it was created in the 1690s by Maison Fossier. Flavoured with vanilla, it owes its characteristic pink colour to the addition of carmine, intended to hide the dark particles of vanilla within the sponge. Best enjoyed dipped in local champagne, it is commonly dunked into various liquids to bring out its subtle flavour, including coffee, ratafia, milk or even red wine.
Christmas just would not be Christmas without the traditional biscuits of Grand Est. Baked with a huge variety of different flavourings, so much so that it’s common to be offered an assortment in a baker’s, the bredele is a biscuit historically associated with Alsace. Popular traditional flavours include aniseed, orange and cinnamon, nuts and pain d’épices, but modern tastes are catered for too, with peanut butter and maple syrup among more avant-garde flavour options. Bredele are still very much a part of family life in Grand Est, and at Christmas closely-guarded recipes are deployed, with the results being gifted to friends, family and visitors over the festive period.
Biscuits you’ll find across France
In addition to the local speciality biscuits that grace the tables of towns and villages of France, there are also teatime treats that can be seen throughout the country. The less-than-charmingly-named but delicious Langues de Chat is a crisp stalwart of the kitchen cupboard, while palmiers sit more on the pastry side than biscuit, but are found in bakeries and supermarkets everywhere, such is their popularity.
Next time you find yourself in the impressively stocked biscuit aisle at Carrefour, look out for the number of LU biscuits you see there. Although now owned by the American brand Mondelez International (since its sale by Groupe Danone in 2017) the products are still phenomenally popular in the country that created them some 175 years ago. While you’re there, get me a packet of LU Pim’s Framboise would you?
You might also like…