Sep 16, 2014

Show Us Your Stripes: Bleu d'Emeraude


The little Breton town of Dinard, France, on the Emerald Coast of Bretagne looks like a picture postcard of an old-timey beach, with its blue striped tents. I feel like all you'd need to do is add bloomers to make the retro look complete. It's a magical place, and made even more so by this classic nautical motif called Breton stripes.

Sep 15, 2014

Let There Be Light: Fromage de Montagne


I think I might be disinherited if I failed to write about the Lumière brothers, the inventors of cinematography and -- more importantly in my family -- great pioneers in photography. On the coast walk in Dinard is a spot called La Grotte de la Goule aux Fées; it means something like "the Cave of the Ghoul Witches" ("fée" means fairy, also). It's an unassuming spot but a must-see pilgrimage destination for serious photography and movie enthusiasts who just happen to be taking a coastal walk in Bretagne.

Sep 14, 2014

Mainely French: Ty-Pavez


There's a lot about Dinard and the Breton coast that reminds me of our near-annual family trips to visit my sister's family in Maine. And it's not just the cold water. The craggy coast has a lot to do with it. Dotted with tiny offshore rocky outposts, it's the kind of coastline that lends itself more to contemplation, art, and fresh air than to sunbathing and snorkeling.

Sep 13, 2014

Dinard-chitecture: L'Ecir en Aubrac

When we visit our friends in Dinard, we stay in a lovely house, a big house, a house close to the sea. But it's not one of these historic mansions actually overlooking the beach. They mostly date from the latter half of the 19th century, when the first bath house was built here in 1859, transforming it from a little fishing village to a luxury resort. In fact, it was the premier resort in France until the French Riviera took over in the 1930s.

I love how so many of the houses, especially the older ones, have names. This one, the "Hurle-Vent" ("Screaming-Wind") right one top of a coastal cliff, seems especially well named.

Many of the first visitors and villa owners were foreigners, often British. It's still known as the most British corner of France, and not just because it's physically close to England just over the Channel. Some of the more famous visitors include Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Achille-Claude Debussy, the real Lawrence of Arabia, Oscar Wilde, and lots of European royalty.

Because of the foreign influence, and the fact that the houses were build up so recently -- by European standards, that is -- the architecture is notably different than most of the rest of France, and certainly from Paris. It's a mixture of a neo-Gothic, neo-Classic Italian, Victorian, and fantasy storybook castle. That's why over 400 of these villas are classified in the Protection Zone of Patrimonial Urban and Countryside Architecture.

There won't be any new construction of these mansions overlooking the cliffs because of a 1986 law in France, called the loi littoral (coastline law), which forbids construction within 100 meters of any body of water, unless the area is already urbanized or if its necessary for public use or service purposes. This gorgeous field, just at the edge of the water, is untouchable. Bliss.

One of these smaller mansions is up for sale now; the final price is expected to be around 1.3€ million, but I take an outside peek when I'm there, and it's obvious it needs a lot more money put into it to bring it to livable standards. So figure that for a cool 2 million, you can get a small coastal villa, and you'll have to pay exponentially more than that for one of these prominent big ones. But they don't come up for sale very often.

THE CHEESE: L'Ecir en Aubrac
L'Ecir en Aubrac is a raw cows' milk cheese made in a tiny fromagerie in Aubrac, right near Laguiole, home to the famous French knives.
It's a creamy puck of a cheese, whose method of production is a jealously guarded secret. I can tell you that it's aged for 6-8 weeks, and made with spring and summer milks, for the most part, between January through September. The result is a delicate white crust over an oozy, delicious interior. It's got a substantial but well-balanced flavor, with hints of sweet and salty, honey, and the grazing herbs.
Though this is not a cheese from Bretagne, I buy it during our latest trip to Dinard. And the sticker of L'Ecir en Aubrac does highlight a charming, regional, architectural detail. From the wrong region, of course, but there's still a lot of stone involved.

Sep 12, 2014

Tropical Bretagne: Sablé de Wissant


Every summer, we visit friends who have a vacation home in Dinard, a small village in Bretagne with a front row seat to the walled town of St. Malo. But that view is not even the best part of being here.

My favorite part is the view of the water itself. This isn't called the Cote d'Emeraude (Emerald Coast) for nothing.

The color of the water reminds me much more of the tropics than of the Atlantic beaches I grew up seeing in the Northeast of the US. Technically, this isn't the Atlantic either, I suppose. It's really on "La Manche" -- meaning "The Sleeve", which we know as the English Channel.

Sep 11, 2014

Ahoy There, St. Malo: St. Môret


St. Malo is a medieval walled city at the edge of Bretagne known for mariners, pirates, and an independent streak a mild wide -- or, in this case more specifically -- 1.75 km long of ramparts. There's a history of piracy here, and of rebellion: In the 1400s they declared independence, saying they were not French, not even Breton, but rather Malouins. However, it's a tiny place, and also a strategic one on the English channel, so -- as you can imagine -- that didn't last too long.

The pirates, called corsairs, forced English ships to pay tribute in order to be allowed through the Channel. This is the home to France's best sailors, historically, including Jacques Cartier, who I have seen described as not only the "discoverer" of Canada, but also -- more amusingly -- as the "inventor" of Canada. This is also the original home, logically, of the first colonists who settled Les Iles Malouines, which is the French name for the Falkland Islands.

Now, the pirates are the shops who will overcharge you (slightly) for souvenirs and delicious Breton crêpes, muscles, and cider. We walk around the entire old town on the ramparts to pretend that we deserve our 5000 calories of cheese, cream, chocolate, alcohol, and the famous oysters from neighboring Cancale.


It's only a couple kilometers, so it doesn't take too long to walk around the walls. And you get to look out over the blue-gray Atlantic with its little outpost islands just offshore.

Every once in a while, a little head pops up from a lower level.


Here's what it looks like from the outside.

The military history spans centuries, but now the armaments are just for show.

Here and there, you can see the difference between the truly old sections and those that the Americans rebuilt after bombing it during World War II, mistakenly believing it to be occupied by Germans. Oops. In fact, much of Saint Malo was destroyed in August 1944, in the aftermath of D-Day, and the very apologetic US was instrumental in rebuilding it from 1948-1960 (though it must be said, the Malouins seem to be very understanding about the error, given the historical context).

The town is named after Saint Malo, also known as Saint Maclou, Mac'h Low, since he seems to have been a Welshman, born around 520 A.D. He founded the town here in the mid 6th century, and is also considered to be one of the seven founding saints of larger Bretagne.
Created in 1980, St. Môret i's basically cream cheese. It's even good on a bagel. It's industrial, low in fat, creamy, mild, and savory. Frankly, I want to mock it, but I have just snarfed down a batch of mini crackers dipped into a mini tub of St. Môret, and I'm in mini-heaven. The girls have a new favorite, little, portable snack.
It's a commercial brand name from a company, St. Môret, that makes many kinds of cheeses. Basically it's the anthithesis of a small farmhouse producer, with each level owned by an even bigger company: St. Môret is in turn part of the Fromarsca family of factories, under the group Bongrain. This cheese -- their namesake, original, hallmark cheese -- is made from pasteurized cow's milk.
St. Môret appears to be yet another fake saint, in the vein of St. Agur. The marketing experts must have determined that cheeses with saint names sell well. Therefore, might I suggest a cheese named St. Kazz?
I'm just happy that St. Môret is made from cow's milk, since this is Bretagne, after all, next to Normandie, and most definitely cow country (sheep and goats need not apply). But really, the connection to me is simply the names of both the place and the cheese, and how they are both named for saints (real of imagined) and sound so similar.

Sep 10, 2014

Icon on a Hill: Crémeux du Mont-St- Michel


I've heard of Mont Saint-Michel; I've seen the photos. But I'm just not prepared for the reality. It's much more magnificent than I anticipated. It's a hassle to get to -- far from train stations, several hours drive from Normandy, and therefore several more from Paris. Yet it's worth it -- not just to check this icon off the bucket list, but also to experience the labyrinth hidden beneath the surface.

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