Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Côte Emeraude - Brittany's Emerald Coast

Why is it that in Celtic countries even the rocks look like they have souls? Is it a vestige of the druidic worship of moss-grown boulders dotting the wind-swept heather meadows of Ireland, Scotland or Cornwall? The feature that unites all Celtic lands is a mysterious, meaningful air about their understated weather-worn beauty.

Just turn around the curve of the Mont St. Michel Bay and the scenery, architecture and the very vibe of the area change: you are on the territory of the ancient Duchy of Brittany. Called Little Britain in the Middle Ages to distinguish it from Great Britain across the water, this Celtic principality was an advanced little country: first book in Breton predates the first book in French by 50 years and it got its parliament, États de Bretagne, as early as 1352. The first Breton dictionary – the fact that usually symbolizes the status of a language as established and developed - was also the first French one.

Brittany fiercely fought for its cultural and political independence well until the 16th century when it became annexed into the Kingdom of France through the not quite willing marriage of its Duchess Anne to the French King Louis XII. Strangely enough, the final blow that erased the last traces of Brittany’s autonomy was delivered by the French Revolution in 1789: all feudal privileges were abolished and down went Breton Parliament, the status of the language and cultural autonomy.

A nation of seafarers and fishermen, Brittany is big on fish and seafood. The local way to cook it is called à l’armoricaine – after the Latin name of the Breton seashore – with tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs (tarragon and/or parsley) and a dash of cognac. Most famously, lobster is served that way for a 5-star gourmet experience. Meat and not only can be served à la bretonne: with tomatoes, haricot beans and garlic. Fishermen’s staple cotriade – is a simple but nonetheless fragrant soup (or stew if you will) of the daily catch with onions and potatoes, identical to its Russian equivalent ukha except for the way the potatoes are chopped. Shellfish and crabs often seem to end up in cream and bread crumbs here.

The village of Cancale situated between the Mont St. Michel and St. Malo is particularly famous for its oysters - les plates de Cancale - that have been farmed here since the Roman times. The proliferation of seafood restaurants on Cancale's seaside almost guarantees that you won't be able to find a place to park your car so arrive well before you start feeling the first pangs of hunger.

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