QUIMPER, FRANCE — An oyster. A thing so ugly and hard and ancient. But with some work and patience and curiosity, you get a hold and crack it open and the whole sea waits before you. Such is Bretagne.
Early morning out of Morlaix, we headed southwest to the wild and largely uninhabited Crozon penninsula. Home to some of the most magestic cliffs and ocean views, yet wind swept and eerily desolate, this protected park on an anchor shaped spit of land was a favorite spot for hikers. We pulled as far off the map as possible and made our way down a dusty trail to a gorgeous headland. Lunch was shared with a cold bottle of Breton rose and a flock of seagulls.
The Breton Cidre Museum sits on an old, but still operational farmstead. They do Cidre the old way here: not cavity-enducingly sweet soda, but the cold, dry and often-times bitter suds that few cider drinkers really ever taste. A short video and tour of the ancient machinery revealed further why Bretons are a whole other breed than the stinky-cheese-eating, vine-rearing countrymen to the east.
And that famous Celtic friendliness was on display too. We shared stories with the proprietor of this little farm-cum-cultural-stronghold over samples of Cidre and the amazing Calvados — brandy made out of apple cider — that is only truly great here.
Quimper (pronounced “koom-pair”) on the map looks like a simple crossroads for those spreading out across the penninsula. In reality, this confluence of two slow moving rivers offers a hell of a lot more, including world-class grub, a wonderful farmer’s market and a regal, northern European feel. We settled in for a few days and began to explore.
The next morning we packed up for a day trip south. The legendary fortified city of Concarneau sits on a little spit of land that at high tide is an isolated island in the harbor. Here we stopped to explore the medieval streets, walk the ramparts and sample the delicacies.
But Concarneau was simply a rest stop on what was the central goal of the entire trip: a Mecca-like pilgrammage to find the world’s most delicous oysters. This is serious stuff, people.
Here I have to channel Papa: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Exactly: simple, true, joyous. We bumped down a potholed country road, watching the next curve on the GPS and just hoping we were heading the right direction. The Port of Belon isn’t really even a town, it’s a tiny destination where the road ends and a wide, deep marina allows a few sailboats to tie up in the estuary of the muddy Belon river.
It’s exactly this combination of nutritious, fresh water and the twice-daily surge of cold, salty seawater that comes up the river that makes this the recipe for perfection. The oysters that grow here are like none other in the world, and others have tried to reproduce them unsuccessfully.
With flaky round shells, they are even more beautiful than their crusty, rock-looking cousins. And once you pop them open, the taste of Brittany comes with. Exceptionally salty like the sea and a soft, rich flavor to the meat, it’s almost as if the famous Breton butter was hiding somewhere deep within. Absolutely amazing.
We sampled four or five dozen from purveyor Anne of Belon — mind you, at a mind-numbing 6 euro per dozen price — on sunbleached picnic chairs overlooking the harbor. Like Hemingway, we washed ours down with a crisp white wine and Breton cidre from the museum. Utter bliss.
You might not believe it, but this sumptuous treat was just our appetizer. After a dusty hike along the Belon coastline, we made our way back to the only establishment in the port: Chez Jacky.
You order one thing here and one thing only: the shellfish tower. This monstrocity consists of every type of crawly ocean creature you can think of: king crab, langoustines, Atlantic shrimp, popcorn-like tiny crill, mussels, two kinds of oyster, four kinds of clams, large and slimy sea snails, tiny periwinkles and stone crab claws for good luck.
It’s hard to believe, but somehow we cleared the whole plate, sucked every shell. Happy, full and fulfilled from our stomachs to our souls, we lounged on the deck with a digestif and watched the sun set over the river.
A heavy-handed metaphor for sure, but an apt one. By now we had cracked the shell of Bretagne and were slurping deeply. Faces messy, hands salty and, in every way, happy and content.