Journeying due west from Paris, over the lush, low-lying plains of Normandy, the traveler comes to a land of rolling hills and craggy coastlines, a region steeped in Celtic culture and stubbornly independent from the rest of France, a place called Breiz by its inhabitants, known to the rest of the world as Brittany. Many of the 3 million residents of this westernmost Gallic province speak a Celtic tongue related to Welsh and consider themselves first and foremost Bretons -- and Frenchmen only after that.
The cuisine of the region is also independent, as unique and typical of Brittany as are the stone crucifixes that stand at the country crossroads or the white lace headdresses worn by Breton women for weddings and holidays.
The familiar quiche or coq au vin found elsewhere in France gives way to such exotic-sounding dishes as kuigh-aman or kig ha farz. Buckwheat crepes often replace the crusty baguette as daily bread, while cider and buttermilk succeed the ubiquitous wine as the table beverage.
The cuisine of Brittany may be less sophisticated than that of Lyon or Paris, but its robustness and substance make it one of the most esteemed fares of France.
The Breton waters teem with seafood. The peninsula's numerous inlets harbor clams, mussels, surf crabs, and oysters. Deep coves and granite reefs off the coast hide spider crabs and royal blue lobsters. The high seas surrounding Brittany swarm with turbot, mackerel, sea bass, cod, and conger eel, ingredients for the fragrant fish soups and fisherman's stews for which Brittany is renowned all over France.
The most famous of these fish stews is the cotriade -- a briny mingling of six different kinds of fish plus potatoes and sometimes lemony sorrel. Cotriadem is the Breton word for cauldron, the sturdy cast-iron kettles in which fish stews are traditionally simmered.
Cotriade may well be an ancestor of New England fish chowder since the French word for cauldron is chaudron,m from which we get our word chowder.
Like New England chowders, cotriades are made by simmering fish and potatoes, but the traditional way of serving cotriade is characteristically French. Fish and potatoes are served first on dinner plates and the broth comes after, to be spooned from soup bowls loaded with snippets of bread.
Crepes are another Breton specialty, not only the delicate white flour crepes usually associated with French cuisine, but also hardy whole-grain crepes made from buckwheat. Called sarrasinm in French for the Saracens, or Moors, who brought buckwheat from Africa to Europe during their 8th-century conquest of Spain.
For centuries, Bretons have used buckwheat to make crepesm and galettes,m the paperthin pancakes which formerly took the place of bread in the Breton diet.
Every town, almost every street corner in Brittany, has its creperie,m or crepe shop, a cross between a pizzaria and a coffeehouse, to which young Bretons repair for cider and conversation, and of course, for crepes. Some Breton crepe favorites include the completm -- "the works." It is a buckwheat crepe filled with a fried egg, bacon, and cubes of Swiss cheese. For snacking, white flour crepes are spread with honey and lemon or melted chocolate.
Below are recipes for two Breton specialties: a fisherman's cotriade and accompanying buckwheat crepes. Serve sparkling cider with both. Brittany Fisherman's Stew (Cotriade de Pecheur) 3 pounds fish, including 4 of the following: small whole mackerel, whole porgie, whole fresh sardines, whole whitings, whole red fish, fillets of cusk, scrod, cod, hake, or halibut 4 tablespoons butter 2 onions, diced 2 leeks, diced, white part only 2 large potatoes, peeled, cut in 1/4-inch slices 1 bay leaf Pinch of thyme 2 teaspoons salt or to taste 4 twists freshly ground black pepper 6 cups water
Cut whole fish into 1-inch slices; fish fillets into 1-inch cubes. Melt butter in large, heavy saucepan and lightly saute leeks and onions, but do not brown. Add fish and potatoes in layers followed by seasonings and water to cover.
Simmer the cotriade (stew) for 25 to 35 minutes, or until fish is cooked and potatoes soften, skimming off any foam with a ladle from time to time.
Season to taste before serving. Serve fish and potatoes on dinner plates and broth in soup bowls with snippets of bread. Serves 6. Buckwheat Crepes (Galettes de Sarrasin) 1/2 cup buckwheat flour 1 cup unbleached white flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 1 1/2 cups water 3 tablespoons melted butter, plus butter for serving
Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and gradually whisk in eggs and water. Strain batter, add melted butter, and let batter stand for at least 30 minutes.
Oil very lightly a crepe pan or 10-inch frying pan and heat pan over a moderate flame. Ladle 1/3 cup batter into pan and swirl pan to spread batter evenly. If the batter is too thick, add a couple of tablespoons cold water.
Cook crepes 1 minute on each side. It should not be necessary to oil pan between crepes. To serve, spread crepes with butter and fold in four. Serve buckwheat galettes with the meat in place of bread. Makes 10 10- inch crepes.