Hand in hand, bundled up against the wild wind, we picked our way along the old stonewall above a narrow stretch of beach somewhere between Ploudalmézeau and Plouguemeau. Quaint picture-postcard fishing villages dot the coastline, those low stonewalls the only protection against the wild waves of tempests. This single day was sunny and bright although sweaters and coats were necessary even for a spring day up in this spectacular, wind whipped, chilly part of the country. Our faces often turned towards the warmth of the sun, we watched brave Bretons frolic in the frigid water, fishermen tying and untying rope, dogs romp in the mud and old locals and tourists alike wander the tiny cobbled streets. We poked through pretty little shops displaying bowls for cider, plates for crêpes and picture postcards as we breathed in the fresh, bracing air and built up an appetite.
We have always adored visiting Brest, visiting Brittany since the first time husband and I drove out to the very tip of France the day after our marriage, a poor-man’s honeymoon but one filled with friends, food, laughter and romance. Extravagant, awe-inspiring landscapes, Bretons have come to live within the rules set by Mother Nature, coexisting with the elements rather than trying to tame them. Mornings at waterfront markets or afternoons meeting the boats at port to buy fresh seafood, in between tiptoeing through ancient Celtic monumental stone piles, we have travelled from one end of Brittany to the other from the pre-historic to the modern, from the islands off the coast to art and music festivals in the city. From sweet, ethereal crêpes swimming in salty butter and crunchy with sugar to savory galettes stuffed with Andouille and sweet apples or thick slabs of gooey goat cheese, from local gariguette strawberries from Plougastel to tiny black bigorneaux snails, their dense, slick black bodies pulled out of the shells with straight pins and plump crabs eaten with bare hands, dipped in butter or homemade mayonnaise all washed down with bottles of cider, the food of Brittany is worth the trip itself.
Happily we live at what was once – and again attains to be – the southern tip and proud capital of Brittany and the fresh ingredients we find on our market are still pungent of the sea, and the food we eat out is Brittany at its best, albeit with a local twist. We had eaten the famous Prat ar coum oysters in our own tiny corner of Brittany and when invited by friends to spend a short vacation in Brest husband knew he had to track these treasures at their source, eat them straight out of the water. Some men offer their women diamonds or rubies, others bundles of roses or boxes of chocolates. Mine offers me oysters and lobster. We found their vivier – the warehouse, cement floors, men and women decked out in rubber boots, rubber aprons and rubber gloves stomping through puddles from tank to huge tank, scooping out live beasts, crabs, lobsters, clams galore and bagging them for clients, or shoving them in the floor-to-ceiling cookers so one could then head home with freshly-steamed seafood, yes we found the warehouse where chefs and fishmongers, locals and tourists alike stand elbow to elbow waiting patiently, ogling the living treasures as in some museum, pointing out the one wanted. Heaven! And nestled behind the vivier, hidden away from all but the most devoted, the most curious, was a tiny restaurant.
And that night we returned and dined on oysters and fresh lobster with glasses of crisp white wine. And as we were finishing, sated and content, we spied a woman through the fading light of late evening slowly heading towards the restaurant from a house off in the distance, its light-infused windows bright and cheery. And she was carrying a large baking tray fresh from the oven, if the tea towels with which she was gripping the pan were any clue. And as she got closer, as she stepped through the door of the diningroom we saw that she was carrying in dessert baked in her own home at the end of the lane. A Far Breton. What else? The only dessert on the menu. And thick, creamy slabs, warm and tender, of that Far were served to each diner dusted simply with powdered sugar and husband and I went home that night, arm in arm, happy.
Far Breton, one of Brittany’s secret gems, a delicious local specialty, is a dense, oven-baked, custard-like flan only creamier, lighter than the one most of us are familiar with, and it is usually and traditionally studded with sweet prunes macerated in rum. The batter is very much like crêpe batter but with just a tad of flour. All one needs to make a perfect Far is the best quality eggs, butter, salted of course, sugar, flour and whole milk along with fruit, whether prunes, apricots, apples or other, although my son adamantly prefers his plain with no fruit at all. My recipe comes from my friend Isabelle, a true Bretonne, a Frenchwoman born and bred. Yet as she, like my own husband and every French friend I have, cooks and bakes au pif, literally by the nose, by instinct, with no recipe at hand, I had to fiddle and play with what she wrote down for me, try it again and again until I had reached perfection. Until my husband, a smile playing on his lips, sighed, “now THAT is a Far!”
You might also want to try:
Isabelle’s wonderful Orange Cake
A traditional Apple Flognarde
Lemon Raspberry Flan
FAR BRETON AUX GRIOTTES
This is an ideal recipe for winter or when cherries are not in season (or are too pricey) when you still crave this sweetest of fruits. I always have a jar or two of sour cherries – griottes – in my pantry for when the cherry craving hits. If you want to make the traditional Far Breton aux Pruneaux with dried prunes and rum, follow the link here).
1 cup drained jarred pitted cherries
3 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla, optional
4 Tbs (60 g) sugar
4 gently rounded (not heaping) Tbs (70 g) flour
Pinch salt (add 2 pinches salt if using unsalted butter for the dish)
2 cups (450 ml, just under ½ litre) whole milk
1 Tbs (15 g) salted butter for the baking dish
Prepare the batter about 2 hours ahead of baking.
Drain the jarred cherries reserving the liquid/juice for another use.
Break the 3 eggs into a medium-sized mixing bowl and whisk until very well blended. Whisk in the vanilla if using and the sugar. Gradually and carefully add in the flour and salt combined, whisking in a few tablespoons at a time and blending until you obtain a smooth, lump-free paste after each addition. Once all of the flour/salt is blended in and the batter is very smooth, creamy and thick, stir in about a third of the milk to loosen the batter. Stir or whisk in the milk in an additional 2 or 3 additions, being careful not to splatter!
Cover the bowl of batter with a plate and set aside at room temperature to rest for at least 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
Put the butter in a glass/Pyrex or terra cotta baking dish measuring approximately 12 x 8 x 1 ½ – inches (30 x 21 x 3 cm) – my second Far was baked in an 8-inch (21-cm) square baking dish – and place in the hot oven until the butter melts. Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and swirl as to spread the butter around the dish. Brush to evenly coat both the bottom and the sides of the dish. Spread the drained cherries evenly over the bottom of the baking dish. Whisk the batter to blend then pour the batter over the fruit.
Place the baking dish in the oven and immediately lower the oven temperature to 375°F (190°C) and bake the Far Breton until just firm, puffed and golden around the edges and bottom, about 30 minutes.
The Far Breton is best eaten warm, dusted with powdered sugar. Once it cools to room temperature or is chilled in the refrigerator, it firms up further and has a slightly denser consistency like that of a good flan, yet still remains creamier than a classic flan.