Last month, part of my yearly trip to France, I spent a whole week in my hometown of Larmor-plage, on the southern Coast of Brittany. A whole week, filled with morning walks on the beach, seafood feasts and many (many!) stops by the bakery. And of course, there is one thing I wouldn’t have missed for the world – the Sunday morning farmer’s market.
In France, the farmer’s market holds a special place in the week – and in the heart – of most people. The market is a place to fill your basket with fresh local produces, but equally to meet your friends and family, check on your favorite butcher or baker, stumble on old relatives and get a feeling of belonging. Belonging to your community, to your hometown and to this bracing effort of preserving your local economy and traditions.
I like to think a trip to the market is also a great way to grasp the vibrant, dissolute, beautiful smells, sounds and tastes of a season. At this time of the year, autumn, Berries and plums are leaving the stalls, making way for apples, squash and mushrooms. Delicate leafy greens are turning into sturdy cabbages and roots. With colder temperatures, seafood and fish gets fewer. But roasts, eggs, cheeses, breads and buttery baked goods… those, they just get bigger and better.
So before Fall turns into Winter, here’s a little peek into the Farmer’s market in Brittany… What delicious bounties are filling the stalls, what are the Fall musts, and how do the French enjoy them ..? Let’s see!
Oysters are the queens of all seafood stalls in Brittany. Shrimp, crabs and lobsters are widely enjoyed too, but the regional fresh oysters are especially loved for their premium quality and unmistakable iodized flavors. Either “plates” (flat) or “creuses” (shallow), the most common varieties come from the Quiberon Bay in South Brittany and from Cancale in North Brittany. (History has it that Louis XIV loved them so much that he had his oysters brought to Versailles from Cancale). With some prices as low as €3/kilo ($4.50/2.2lbs), one can have themselves an exquisite oyster feast for a just few bucks. And you should know that oysters in Brittany should be enjoyed as-is or with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (no “mignonettes”, hot sauces or other deep-fried fooleries!)
Fish is at the heart of Brittany cuisine. The land bounded by sea produces and exports a large portion of its fishing stock throughout all France and beyond. Grilled sardines and mackerel are family-favorites, as is monkfish (“dorrade”), sea bream (“lotte”), eel (“anguille’) and hake (“merlu”). Hake fish is so beloved in my hometown of Lorient, that it became the name of the town’s soccer team. All the local fish can be found in the Cotriade, a delicious fish stew specialty (Brittany’s equivalent to Marseille’s Bouillabaisse). Although personally, when it comes to fish, one of my favorites is cod (“morue”), cooked in a brandade.
Grilled pig or piglet are staples in Brittany’s markets. This is no surprise here, when you know there are more pigs than inhabitants in Brittany! And the locals are masters are turning pigs into many luscious delicacies: pig pâtés (including the infamous Henaff), rillettes and various sausages. My favorite is the “andouillette”: a colon sausage filled to the brim with pig tripe … stinky, chewy, but oh so good!
Roast chicken is a classic. More than a dish, it’s a national treasure. I bet you won’t find a market in France that doesn’t display a kiosk of dripping plump chickens, slowly roasting “à la broche” (on a pit), with an always huge line-up of people in front of it. Roast chicken and grilled potatoes is a Sunday lunch tradition for many families, no matter the season. And although many home cooks have their own favorite recipe, most know that you can get a high-quality, free-range roast chicken for a very affordable price on the market (around €10/€14).
While popular, cured Sausage (saucisson) is not really a Brittany specialty. Dried and cured meats, suggestive of warmer regions, commonly hail from the South of France. The Corsican Island is notably famous to produce exquisite pork and boar saucissons. However, stalls of saucissons are very common all over French markets. And the reason why these little salty gems sell like crazy is because they are a key component of the French “apéro” board– the pre-dinner drinking and snacking gathering that the French religiously hold every weekend evening.
In early Fall, we’re seeing the last of the “gariguette” strawberries (fraises) from Plougastel. This tiny, ruby-red, delectable strawberry only flourishes in the marine climate of this region of the world, and is the pride and joy of local farmers (The strawberry has actually become the symbol of the town of Plougastel.) They are available in most markets in Brittany (around 5€/punnet) and people enjoy them in galettes, crepes, with whipped cream or simply right from the punnet, sitting on the beach.
A rare commodity outside of France, Mirabelles plums appear on stalls in mid-August and last until the end of September. These tiny, sweet yellow plums hail from the Lorraine Region (Eastern France), where 70% of the worldwide production is grown and harvested each-year. (I have heard of some Mirabelle tree crops being sold in the US and Canada, but I have yet to put my hands on real mirabelles in North America). Because their season is short, people go frantic for them! They are such a treat, and bakers love them to make the most delicious and easy Mirabelle tart, a French-classic!
Pink radishes are slowly disappearing, until the next summer. These crunchy, tangy little root-veggies are widely consumed in the Summer, usually as a “Crudité” (raw), with a slice of fresh bread and salted butter. In the fall, people use their delicate green leaves to make a detox soup.
Still here, are zucchini, tomatoes, salads, garlic and onions. With the mild, maritime climate of Brittany, producers can enjoy ideal conditions to manage their crops year-round. No frost nor snow in the winter, no drought in the summer. In summer, we enjoy them in salads, tians or tarts. In the Fall and winter, they make up the main ingredients of the infamous ratatouille.
Although, they gained a bit in popularity these past years, squash (potimarrons) are still very underrated in France. They are far behind in the list of the French’s favorite fall things. Nothing like in North America. Pumpkin pies, pumpkin lattes… are names all so foreign to the French. And when we cook squashes, we do not use the typical spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg). We prefer to cook them simply in a pumpkin veloute or in a rustic tourtiere.
Well, of course, I won’t teach you anything here by saying that cheese is everywhere, and one market often hosts at least 3 or 4 cheese producers. Many of them, as dairy farmers, will also sell eggs, home-made yogurts, fromages blancs, faisselles and sometimes tourteau fromager – a goat-cheese cake from Poitou – recognizable by its domed burnt-top.
In Brittany, you will always find huge stalls of buttery cakes and treats (Brittany people do love their butter!). Huge pans of gateau Breton (dense, buttery, sandy-like cakes) are sliced in front of your eyes and sold by the wedge. Dozens of butter-oozing Kouign-amann cakes (crusty caramelized pastries made of layers of yeast dough, salted butter and sugar) align the stalls and are usually all gone by the end of the day.
And of course, one simply can’t end a visit to the market without making a final stop to the “boulangerie” to buy a freshly baked baguette…