Stories from Brittany 3: Mike Goldsmith
The stories here concentrate on food and drink and on old Bony, as Napolean Bonaparte is generally known by the British. Let’s start with old Bony. We think of him as a militaristic warlord who bestrode Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century until meeting defeat, first in Russia and later at Waterloo and who we shipped off to prison on St Helena where he remained until his death. The French have a somewhat different, sometimes ambivalent, view of Bonaparte. He established France as a great European power, gave it a system of administrative law which also forms the basis of legal systems in other European countries, built some great monuments – notably the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre museum, which he filled with his artworks captured during his military adventures, established Les Invalides and other monuments marking his victories. But he was also a misogynist – Not Tonight Josephine – arrogant and pompous! And whether or not the basic system of local government he gave France with its 36000 communes, some with no population whatsoever, is a benefit or a cost is something on which people would disagree.
Our French house is in a rural commune of not more than 1500 people, but the offices and the mayor are only two kilometres away from where we live. A good French mayor will not only know most of his electorate personally, but will probably see them at least once a month. I can remember visiting friends in the Auvergne where the husband was the local mayor and accompanying him on his evening walk to the local vineyard. He would stop and talk to each of his villagers as he passed them – taking the temperature of their mood. And of course he would spend an hour or two in the winery drinking the local wine – the best being reserved until any unwelcome visitors (generally Parisians) had departed. And the local mayor is also likely to be a member of larger local government units which sit over the commune, if not also a member of the French equivalent of the House of Commons or Lords! Whilst there are now restrictions on the number of offices a French politician can hold, many still hold two or three such posts even today.
Old Bony had his impact on Brittany as well. He constructed a canal from Brest to Nantes, which passes not far from our house, as well as the Canal du Midi in the south of France, in order that troops and supplies could move speedily around as and when required. And the nearest large town near our place, Pontivy, was once called Napoleonville and was a major troop centre. Even today some of the buildings constructed during the Napoleonic era can still be seen.
Pontivy is also the place which houses one of our favourite restaurants. Run for most of the last twenty odd years by Laurent and his wife, it has provided us with some of our best meals locally. We sense that he has struggled over the years to make a really good living, partly because Pontivy is not on the tourist map, the French people who eat there are quite limited in number and the full time British residents who use the place have been declining in number as age and ill health take their toll. Competition between French restauranteurs is always extremely competitive, and as price increases are limited, the best chefs have to be very adaptable in terms of the menu they provide. As food supply prices have increased it remains a wonder to see how Laurent adopts cheaper cuts of meat and still works wonders with the dishes he provides, whilst still providing excellent wines and extremely good value for money, as we discovered during a recent visit!
Brittany’s best known food are its pancakes (crepes) and its fish especially shellfish such as mussels, oysters, clams, crabs and lobsters. Though I cannot open them, I’m a great oyster lover – but I came to them almost in my middle aged years. We were near Bordeaux and one evening we were eating out with the family when I decided to give them a try, wondering if I would like them. I started on a half dozen and I can still recall the way my children all said “Oh dad, you do like oysters!’ There must have been some expression on my face that gave my liking away. And the first time we visited the French in-laws, the host served up something four dozen oysters – the rest of the family only ate about a dozen, leaving the two fathers to wade their way through almost three dozen – and I still like the little gems! Moules frites (mussels and chips) is another favourite, along with sole meuniere (a sole heavily cooked in butter and herbs) another, and steak frites a third!
But for a really cheap meal there is nothing to beat Breton crepes, much liked by young and old, and with everyone having their special restaurant or creperie. Our Brittany based grandchildren all enjoy them, so we always have to go out at least once to a local creperie. A meal would usually comprise at least three crepes, two making up the main course and the third more of a pancake. The main course ones are made with stronger flour than the pancakes and can contain a variety of fillings. I usually go for ham and cheese or one with tomato, but you can have nearly anything from smoked salmon to Breton sausage– and if you go for a complet your crepe arrives with a fried egg on top! Easy to make, fast to cook, service is rapid, and the overall cost is cheap – we’ve rarely paid more than 80 or 90 euros to feed and water a group of seven, a meal which will also include large amounts of Breton cider and coffee, plus those sweet drinks children like!
Unfortunately Brittany does not produce wine in any quantity, but it does provide beer and cider. Whilst some is mass produced, it is the artisanal varieties which are best. I find the cider more gentle than its British counterpart, with even the dry (brut) slightly sweeter than the British. And Breton beer has its attractions as well. By the French still drink large amounts of wine with their meals, as well as a drink to be enjoyed in a bar. Muscadet is the wine produced nearest our place, some 100 kilometres further south around Nantes, a wine somewhat variable in quality, but with some good producers as well and it is especially good with fish. Twenty five years or more spending at least some time each year in France has given us a great opportunity not only to explore the country but its wines as well. Whilst we do appreciate the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, we particularly like the lighter wines one finds along the Loire, particularly a couple which come from near Saumur. But again it was partly by accident that we found the ones we like best. One year we were staying in Saumur on our way back from a trip further east when we discovered that it was the town’s first (and as it turned out only) Wine Fair. We decided to give it a try and for 3 euros we were given a glass and allowed to visit and drink ( not just taste!) at as many of the wine growers stalls as we wished. Having tried two or three, including a visit to the Filliatreau stand (their wine is available in the UK) we noticed a large crowd at one stall in particular, overseen by a lady of indeterminate age. We went across – and the wine was lovely. Mme Nerleux informed us her chateau was open the next day out in Saumur Champigny – and we have been buying their red wine ever since, tying the purchase in with a visit to Saumur. And not far away from there is another great vineyard – Chateau de Villeneuve, which produces some delicious white wine. Other wines are available, and we do visit other wine growing areas of France, especially Alsace, but my best arrangement is the one I have with a friend from the Jura who has his second home in the same village as us – I swap whisky for Burgundy wine and whilst I sometimes feel that he gets the better part of the bargain, I’ve also had some really good wines as well.
The last story in this edition concerns the time we visited our Jura friends in their home area. We were staying fairly close to Beaune, the heart of the Burgundy wine growing district, so of course we had to buy some wine to put down and keep for a while. But I find Burgundy wines difficult to work out which are the best, so we tried a local wine store. I was asked for how long did I want to keep my wines (all red)? I answered 20 to 25 years and then realized I would probably be dead by then – and quickly responded – no at that distance it would be my grandchildren who would drink the wine – make it 10 to 15 years. The wine we bought on that occasion is just about ready to drink, and though expensive in French terms when we bought it, as all good wine is, I could probably make a good profit if I were to sell the bottles now!
We have been lucky over the years in being able to buy our wine in France and Covid hit our stocks hard because of travel restrictions for both us and our French based family. So we have been down to either restricting our weekly intake or drinking ‘the good stuff’ and seeing the stocks diminish….. I’ll let readers decide which choice they would make! But our recent trip to see family (not seen for over two years – how the grandchildren had grown) allowed us to visit a local wine merchant and restock on the cheaper stuff – though even that has gone up in price over the last two years! But at least there was no shortage of lorries on the roads; or empty shelves in the supermarkets where everybody was wearing a mask, and the restaurants need to see our vaccination status before we could go in!