With the help of Michelin-starred chef Gilbert Guyon, Victoria Trott discovers the food and drink that makes Breton gastronomy so distinct
It is 8.30am and along with a dozen locals I am queuing at Stéphane Salaün’s fish stall in Les Halles Saint-François, Quimper’s covered market. Sardines and mackerel, their blue scales glinting under the light, fan out on the ice along with about 20 other species. Dressed in trawler-friendly waterproofs, Stéphane chats to his regulars as he fillets a cod with speed and precision.
“Cornouaille, like the rest of coastal Brittany, is all about fish and Stéphane’s are the best,” Gilbert Guyon tells me above the hubbub. I am accompanying Quimper’s only Michelin-starred chef on his daily shopping trip to learn about the food of south-west Brittany, an area also known as Cornouaille after the Cornish saints who settled here. And where better to start than the market? “This place is an inspiration,” Gilbert says, “almost everything here is locally or regionally produced and it’s particularly wonderful on Saturday mornings.”
The market contains around 50 stalls, and Gilbert, whose restaurant L’Ambroisie, has had a Michelin star for two years, takes me to his favourites. Fromagère Ingrid Leost’s offerings include several regional cheeses which are recognisable by the black and white Breton flag, Gwenn-ha-Du, stuck in them; try the mild goats’ cheese Ménez- Hom. Les Vergers de la Campagne sells only apples, many from the region whose main season is September and October. The Le Berres set up their home-grown vegetable stall on a table in the central aisle every morning. BaraBio makes organic breads including a brioche-like pumpkin variety and multi-grain baguettes. Passion Gourmande is the place to go for drinks, with its stock of ciders, beers such as Tri Martolod from nearby Concarneau and liqueurs including Kremmig, a creamy concoction made with cider brandy.
I wish it was lunchtime so I could go up Mont Frugy for a picnic with a view over the town or relax with a snack in the Jardin de la Retraite. Instead, I cross the canal-width River Steir to Place Terre au Duc with its timber-framed buildings. Thanks to an e-guide by local writer Wendy Mewes (www.wendymewes.com), I learn that the square was heavily damaged during the 16th-century Wars of Religion. But there’s no obvious evidence of that now and the area is busy with tourists exploring the pretty capital of the Finistère département.
The smart glass façade of L’Épicerie Fine hides a treasure trove of regional goodies. Owner Corinne Frabolot explains: “We only stock small producers who are passionate about what they do. For example, La Compagnie Bretonne du Poisson in Saint-Guénolé, one of Cornouaille’s major fishing ports, has been preserving fish by hand for three generations – they even put the name of the boat and port that the fish came from on each tin.”
I notice the dried pasta. That’s not very Breton, surely? “Ah yes,” says Corinne. “It’s made by an amazing young man called David Le Ruyet based in Morbihan who grows his own wheat and makes his pasta in moulds that he had made in Italy. He sells the pasta all over France and supplies top restaurants in Paris.”
I leave with a box of Balade en Bretagne (Chinese oolong tea flavoured with salted butter caramel) from France’s oldest tea company, Compagnie Coloniale, and pork terrine made by Ravalec in Bénodet. Brittany is France’s main pork-producing region, so pâté and other porcine dishes are widely available.
The most famous pâtisserie in town is Les Macarons de Philomène, France’s leading maker of these tasty morsels, which has an array of different sweet treats. Then, after a quick espresso with the owner of Torréfaction du Steir – the place to go to buy coffee and tea – I walk along the River Odet to the historic quarter of Locmaria.
On the opposite bank to the main town, this is the oldest part of Quimper. Locmaria is noted for its 11th-century church; the medieval garden, one of France’s Jardins Remarquables; famous pottery maker H B Henriot, which was founded in 1690; and La Biscuiterie, where I am heading.
Here you can watch the bakers make crêpes dentelles (long, flat biscuits) by hand and choose from hundreds of cakes and biscuits including kouign amann (butter cake), far (prune flan), crakou (brittle biscuits with caramelised nuts) and crêpes. Brittany is France’s main milk-producing region so most of its sweet specialities are made with copious amounts of butter.
Anyone who has been to a crêperie in Brittany will know that the most popular accompanying beverage is cider. The region is France’s second-largest producer after Normandy and one of the best makers, Manoir du Kinkiz, is based in a charming country house set in 30 hectares on the outskirts of Quimper.
The company’s best-known products are the AOP Cornouaille (cider) and AOC Pommeau de Bretagne (cider brandy), both of which have won gold medals in national competitions. Owner-producer Hervé Seznec, who is showing me around, says: “We are all about tradition – traditional varieties of apples and methods of cider-making. This, coupled with the distinct climate, has been the key to our success.” The Manoir regularly organises guided tours and tastings, but those without transport can buy the products in Passion Gourmande in Les Halles or L’Épicerie Fine.
With that, my whirlwind stay in Quimper comes to an end, so it’s au revoir, or as they say in these parts, kenavo Quimper; not goodbye.