The Baked Specialties of Brittany
I prefer my butter on savory breads and cakes, but what I discovered during my time in Brittany was that Breton folk usually want their distinctive, salty butter, to showcase itself in sweet treats.There are exceptions, particularly the buckwheat galettes, but bakery cases are stacked with pastries, gateau, and biscuits (cookies), dizzying in their array, and often dependent on butter in the recipes and/or in the serving. Crêperies likewise serve all manner of crêpes filled with sweet things, from strawberries to the more new-fangled salted caramel, itself a Breton treat.
In many cases, these Breton buttery-sweet specialties are cousins to breads, cakes, and cookies from other Atlantic Celtic nations. Below are some of the most notable delights and their Celtic kin.
Because I prefer savory over sweet, I’ll start with the Breton galette, or Krampouezhenn gwinizh du, in Breton. Galettes are usually large griddle cakes of buckwheat, or blé noir (black wheat), and their fillings are savoury, from the Galette complète of egg, ham, and cheese, or my favorite, galette coquilles St. Jacques (scallops), with bacon and mushrooms à la crème.
Because buckwheat flour contains no gluten, it creates a dense dough with little ability to rise, and so it makes sense that buckwheat works best when made into a flat griddle bread. The billig, or round iron griddle, is heated and greased with clarified butter, and the batter is poured on and immediately raked to create a circle as large as the billig itself. The batter cooks quickly, is brushed with butter, turned, brushed again, and filled, with the edges folded up around the filling like an envelope or in some cases, like a cone.
Smaller and more delicate than the galettes are the crêpes proper. Made of wheat flour, crepes are served after the galette--to those who still have an appetite! On the one occasion where my family ordered one, we split it four ways. It arrived topped with strawberries, ice cream, and gobs of whipped cream--beautiful and tasty, of course.
The speed by which the Breton galette and crêpe are created make them practical for hungry, hard-working people with little time for a break. If we go back centuries, Bretons also faced fuel shortages and oftentimes, had no oven to bake daily bread. Given these conditions, it makes sense that galettes and crêpes have a lot in common with other Celtic griddle breads that were devised for similar reasons, from Scottish drop scones, to Welsh crempog and Bara ceirch. These, too, were often served with a lot of salty butter and washed down with buttermilk or served with a side of fresh curds. While it is difficult to grow wheat in the Atlantic Celtic nations (hence the importance of buckwheat in Brittany, and oats and barley in Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland, and Wales), raising cattle is less difficult. One of the best ways to preserve milk is to make butter and cheese--hence the accompaniments. The smaller-sized Breton crêpes might be because they used expensive wheat flour. Furthermore, crêpes are traditionally associated with with festivals and celebratory foods, while the galette was a Breton staple food.
Sometimes, Bretons had too much butter and too little wheat, and that might explain why baker Yves-René Scordia from Douarnenez, Finistère (Southern Brittany) got creative and invented the Kouign-amann around 1860. This rich treat uses a lower flour-to-butter ratio than what was typical. In Breton, kouign means brioche, or cake, and amann means butter. At this point, many people know about Kouign-amann, with its decadent layers of buttery bread dough sprinkled with sugar that caramelizes slightly as it bakes. While I confronted Kouign-amann everywhere I went in Brittany, I feel lucky that I was only tempted to take photos instead of mouthfuls of this calorific treat.
Palets bretons looked so much like Scottish shortbread that I had to try one to find out. As I bit into it while strolling along a main street in Brest, I realized that while they were replete with butter, they were thicker and more cake-like than their cousins, due to the use of eggs and baking powder. The name, palet breton, might come from an old Breton game,palets, where iron pucks are thrown onto a wooden board. Not as rich as the Kouign-amann, the palet breton is a terrific accompaniment to a cup of coffee given its dry, rich, crumbly nature.
The palet breton that I purchased in Brest was scored with a criss-crossing that reminded me of the scoring of Cornish heavy cake, done to resemble the pilchard nets which brought in many Cornish families’ annual protein supply. Cecile Delarue, in Everything Easy French Cookbook, writes that palets bretons did have a relation to the sea, created by Breton fishermen’s wives who wanted their husbands to have a sweet treat. Stored in a tin box, the cookies would stay edible for quite some time. Heavy cake was likewise created by Cornish fishermen’s wives, but it was more of a celebration cake, made when the pilchard shoals were spotted and safely brought in to shore.
While I only saw the palet bretons scored with criss-crosses one time, without fail, gateau breton was always scored as such. As one can guess, this gateau is as dependent on salty butter as are the other treats described above. Often described as a shortbread, it, too, is distinct from Scottish shortbread. For one, it traditionally used buckwheat, not wheat flour, and even though today the majority of gateau breton are made of wheat, they are indeed cakes, not biscuits: large and round, albeit relatively flat and scored with the design that reminds me of the Cornish pilchard nets. Like many cakes served with coffee and tea, it is relatively plain, allowing the flavor of the butter to speak loudly.
When I return home to my kitchen, I will do some recipe testing and share my results. I bought a rozelle, or the wooden crêpe rake, to help me out when that time comes.
Note: all photos and text are the exclusive property of Andrea Broomfield. Any use of these materials must be clearly acknowledged.