Oysters, foie gras, cheese, and wine

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
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Trip End May 13, 2009


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Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My first sight of Mont-Saint-Michel is across flat green water-logged fields dotted with sheep. It seems a mirage at first, a tiny protrusion above the landscape. As I get closer it grows, and seems even more surreal. Eventually I reach the causeway which now allows you to drive across to the car park below the walls, which gets flooded by the tide every day (tide times are published to prevent your car being flooded or washed away). Before the causeway was built you had to walk about a kilometer across the sands, between the tides.
I arrive on a freezing cold night with no accommodation booked and wander up and down alleyways and steps and eventually choose a place to stay. Inside there are nooks and crannies and stairs everywhere, and along the corridors there are signed pictures and photographs of many of the people who have stayed here - among the assorted royalty, film stars, writers, etc, I find one signed by Leon Trotsky (who was later to be bludgeoned to death with a pick-axe in Mexico).
There are hardly any restaurants open and I choose the vastly less expensive one of the 3 available, and have one of the worst meals I've ever had - nearby is a famous oyster-producing area and naturally I order oysters as an entrée, salivating with anticipation, as I've never eaten French oysters. Six shells arrive in which there are the scrawniest oysters I have ever seen - the oyster meat barely covered the bottom of the shell and the meat from the 6 would barely have been equal to one good oyster. This was followed by an omelette, which is a famous specialty of this area, and at the expensive restaurant further along the way cost around 25 euros - it´s supposed to be whipped until frothy and light and my one had so much air there was virtually no omelette - I'm guessing it was only a one egg omelette (or at most 2). To cap it all off the white wine was warm and the bread soft and white and characterless, totally unlike the excellent bread you normally get in France. I understand that in a highly touristic area the food quality is generally going to be expensive and not great but this was really the most extreme example I've experienced.
Anyhow after a good night's sleep, next morning I went out into the freezing wind and walked all over the rock. Mont-Saint-Michel is built on a rocky island in a huge estuary. A small sanctuary was first put up in 708AD and it became a famous pilgrimage site. The buildings there now were erected between 11th & 15th centuries, and a village grew around it. At its maximum about 40 monks lived there. The buildings are fantastic and I tour them with a young Australian couple - our guide is an incredibly enthusiastic middle-aged French woman and she points out every little detail and our tour goes well over the allotted time.
I drive round the other side of the estuary to Cancale, the oyster-producing area I mentioned previously. I had a lunch there that more than made up for the last night. My assiette of crustaceans was a huge platter of oysters (big fat juicy ones), bigorneaux (tiny black shellfish), clams about 4cm wide, prawns, langoustines, and was topped with a large crab. I sat there happily looking out over the estuary with a pichet of white wine, sliding oysters down my throat, perfecting my technique for getting the bigorneaux and clams out of their shells, pulling the prawns and langoustines apart with my bare hands, and eating every last bit of the crab that could possibly be eaten (basically everything except the shell) - this is not as easy as you think and took well over an hour's assiduous and non-stop work - but it's the sort of work I love to do :).
After this wonderful feast I drove on through St-Malo and into the Finistère (end of the earth) peninsula. I am now in Brittany and there is a distinctly Celtic feel to the place names - the northern coast of the peninsula is called Lèon, and the southern coast is Cornouaille (Cornwall). I meander around the northern coast for a while and eventually decide to stay in the beautiful little town of Tréguier (Landreger in Breton).
There is a market next morning in the square below my hotel window so I go down to find breakfast and get into a conversation with the lady at a crepes stand (I have one with rhubarb jam & one with almond butter), and she is so enthusiastic about the area she writes down a few of her favourite places that she insists I visit - while my crepes get cold, but it's great talking to someone so in love with their area and she's so amazed to be talking to an Australian in Tréguier that we keep talking for a bit, while her other customers patiently wait. I have to admit that I felt guilty because I didn´t go to the places she recommended (I would have had to backtrack and I didn't have the time) - please don't tell her - you will recognise her easily if you ever have a crepe at the market in Tréguier, and they are very good.
I continued on to Ploumanac'h and walked along the coastline of fantastically shaped pink granite rocks (Cote de Granit Rose), then near Ploézoch stopped at the Cairn du Barnenez, 2 burial cairns built between 4500 and 3900 BC. They are 75 metres long by 28 metres wide, and contain 11 tombs, and I scramble over them in the rain, completely alone - it's amazing that the people living there at that time went to such extraordinary lengths to build these tombs.
Most of the towns and villages around here seem to start with Plou, as in driving to my stop for the night at the fishing port of Douarnenez I went past towns called Plouescat, Plouguernéau, and Ploudalmezeau.
Douarnenez is almost the western most point in France, and I stayed in a hotel with a fairly fancy restaurant, and as there weren't many choices I ate there. Dinner was interesting: pumpkin soup with a couple of pieces of stewed apple and andouillette as garnish; then a piece of fish served with very good fine straws of frites on top, in a bowl of thick soupy brown beans. I liked the fish, I liked the frites, and I liked the brown beans - but not at the same time.
The next day I go past the Baie de Trépassés (Bay of the Dead, so called because dead bodies from shipwrecks floated to shore here) to Pointe du Raz, the westernmost point of France. It is wild and cold and windy and you can see the two bodies of water on either side of the cape running into each other and producing white-capped waves.
I get to Quimper (pronounced Kamper) around lunchtime. I read in a guide about the legend of the city of Y, which was drowned in the bay close by. The story is that it was a large city equal to Paris (in fact the other way around, Par-Ys, ie Paris was equal to Y), and that it will rise when Paris sinks.
The most famous food of Brittany is crepes so naturally I gravitate to a creperie, La Krampouzerie. To give me an appetite I start with a cocktail of eau de vie (apple spirit), apple juice, and framboise (raspberry liqueur), then a buckwheat crepe of Coquilles St Jaques (other choices were: smoked oysters from Sarzeau, Basque Brebis (sheep) cheese with black cherry jam, and Goats cheese, lardons & prunes). For dessert I have a buckwheat crepe of chestnut paste with cognac & chantilly cream - other choices I would have liked to have tried were raspberry jam with lambig (Breton Calvados), and apple with handmade caramel & almonds
The owner of the creperie told me they also make a whisky in Brittany out of buckwheat, called Eddu, but unfortunately he didn't have any for me to try.
Continuing my prehistoric investigations I stopped at one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe at Carnac. There are a number of sites containing rows of thousands of standing stones (called menhirs), which were put in place between around 4500 to 2000 BC, well before other sites such as Knossos, the Pyramids, and Stonehenge. Theories as to their meaning range from signposts, markers for burial plots, or sites for astronomical observation. I arrived in Carnac just before sunset which was the perfect time to see the stones.
Leaving Brittany and the Finistère peninsula the first major town is La Rochelle. Even though it was cold and windy like all the places I'd been to in Picardy, Normandy & Brittany, there was a different look and feel to the town. Rather than slate roofs, they were of terracotta tiles, and the feel of the place was just different - I can only say it felt a bit more Mediterranean.
La Rochelle has an interesting history - it is built around a Bassine, with 2 towers on either side of the entrance (Saint-Nicolas and the Chain tower, so called because a chain from this tower blocked the entrance and ships had to pay fees to berth in the protected Bassine), and a bit further along the sea wall the Lantern tower, which functioned initially as a lighthouse in medieval times (when it had a lantern suspended outside), and then a prison (with the walls covered in graffiti from the prisoners). After seeing the other towers I was told the Lantern tower was closed but after a bit of persuasion (I've come all the way from Australia and I'm only here today, etc delivered in pidgin French) a guide accompanied me, unlocked the tower and gave me a personal guided tour.
My lunch at Bistrot Rémi Massé was one of the best meals I've had on my whole trip - Cassolette of oysters & rouget (like a red mullett) aux petits légumes (finely diced vegetables); Grilled Bar Sauvage (Wild Sea Bass), avec blettes legerment cremées, et lard fumé; Gaufre a l'Ancienne (waffle) avec caramel a la fleur de sel, with a half bottle of excellent white wine and an aged Calvados (10 years +) .
My last escapade before arriving in Bordeaux was to visit the Maison de Pierre Loti in Rochefort. Pierre Loti (real name Julien Viaud) was an eccentric writer who lived at the end of the 19th century. He was initially a naval officer and travelled extensively around the world, then he became a writer and built an exotic fantasy house combining Gothic, Arabic and other elements, and held parties where he and the guests dressed up in period costume. Apparently he was very shy and blushed easily.
Finally I arrive in Bordeaux. I stay at the apartment of Elodie, who I met at the last Sitges tango festival (remember, don't give me your email address if you don't want me to visit :).
The next few days are a lot of fun. We start off with a bicycle ride to the Capuchins market on Saturday morning and have a great time shopping: we go to one of the many oyster stalls and ask advice about the best ones for eating raw and for cooking and buy a dozen each of the ones recommended (the man has a booklet showing where they come from and who grew them), then we move on to one of the cheese stalls and buy half a dozen different types, then Elodie buys a whole fresh foie gras (over 600 grams), then vegetables, wine & bread, and finally after all this exhausting shopping we have coffee with Elodie´s friends (who are all on bicycles too). We have 3 espressos each which gives us quite a buzz.
The next few days is spent in an orgy of eating oysters (I learn how to open them), cheese, foie gras (Elodie has de-veined it and cooked it in the oven in a terrine sitting in a bain-marie, and we pan-fry the off-cuts), parties, etc. although I do get out and about a bit.
One of my forays is to the town of Saint-Emilion. Bordeaux is the general name for the wine of the area but actually it is divided into many regions (eg, Medoc, Graves, Pomerol, etc) and there are significant differences in the wine. St Emolion is in a hilly area compared to many of the other wine areas which are on the flat, and it's one of the oldest towns and very picturesque. I have a very pleasant time walking around the streets and eventually find the L'Envers du Décor wine bar. Unfortunately I have arrived just after the kitchen has closed for lunch, but I cajole them into giving me a plate of local cured sausage and bread and settle happily down at the bar and work my way through several wines, which are delicious.
Another excursion is to the Bay of Arcachon, a huge bay south-west of Bordeaux that has many facets - it has long sandy beaches, oyster farms, and a huge line of sand dunes on one side culminating in the Dune du Pilat which is 104 metres high.
After exploring the beaches at Cap-Ferret (which have half-submerged WW2 bunkers in the sand) I stop at Port de Piraillan, one of the main oyster-growers villages in the area. I wander through the village, made up of little wooden shacks, bisected by narrow paths. You can really feel the sense of a close, working community. Elodie has given me the name of Sylvie Latrille, her favourite oyster-grower, so I go to her house and buy 2 dozen fresh oysters, collected that day, and we have a dinner party that night and eat them.
Sadly, I have to leave all this feasting and partying and set off south towards Spain. Thw weather is atrocious, heavy rain, low clouds and a strong wind coming off the Atlantic, so I can´t climb up the Dune of Pilat, and I drive past all these famous resorts such as Biarritz (and a funnily named place, Soorts-Hossegor), and through the French Basque region, without seeing a thing.
Thus ends my trip down the entire Atlantic coast of France.
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