Having just finished the manuscript for my next book (part of the explanation for my long silence), Michael and I took off for Paris and then re-packed our bags and headed to Brittany, the West Coast of France. Brittany is the land of butter and salt (it's the home of fleur de sel de Guérande) and salted butter and salted butter caramels (caramels au beurre salé, CBS for short); of kouing-amann, which is all about butter and caramel; and of seafood, and fish, too.
The French are very precise when it comes to food. Fish is fish and seafood is seafood and you must make sure to separate the two when you're speaking. That seafood is called fruits de mer, or fruits of the sea, feels just right to me: it's an expression that's not just poetically accurate, but seems to carry it with it a sense of love and respect for what's gathered from the waters.
We spent six days traveling the coast of Brittany, eating seafood and fish at lunch and dinner. I would have had oysters for breakfast, but I didn't think they went well with Far Breton and - greedy me -- I didn't want to give up the sweet flan. (There's a recipe for Far Breton in Baking From My Home to Yours.)
Among the many pleasures of this trip was dinner at Bistrot de l'Ecailler on the port in Kerdruc, just minutes from Pont-Aven. If the bistrot's name sounds familiar, it might be because you know its sister restaurant in Paris on the rue Paul-Bert. Minutes after we were seated on the terrace overlooking the snug port, we were served a basket of great bread, salted butter and seaweed butter, both made by Jean-Yves Bordier, the beloved Breton buttermaker, and a handful of bigourneaux, or winkles. (I love that BBC Food says that 'winkles have a limited following despite being delicious').
Am I wrong, or is it true that we don't see these much in the States?
The first time I ever had them, I had no idea what to do with them. Michael and I were on our second trip to France and we'd been invited to a friend's home for lunch. When we arrived, we discovered that it was her brother's 21st birthday and 30 -- count'em -- family members were gathered around the table to celebrate the occasion with lunch. We got there just as huge bowls of bigourneaux were being passed around ... along with nails! The nails were used to pull (sometimes yank) the snail-ish creatures out of their shells. The process was messy and fun (once I got the hang of it). It's the kind of food that just about forces strangers to become friends - it's hard not to be friendly when you're playing with your food. Of course there isn't a time when I have bigourneaux that I don't think of that lunch.
Bigourneaux are part of most plateaux fruits de mer, or French seafood platters, and they turned up regularly in Brittany. They appeared again in this most fabulous plateaux (again from Bistrot de l'Ecailler). Starting at the lower left with the bigourneaux there are:
Brittany oysters, the creux kind, with deep spoon-like shells; and then flat, round Belon oysters - when I had Belons on the Port de Belon, I pinched myself to prove it was real; next there are crevettes roses, big pink shrimp (can you see their heads popping up between the crab's claws?); and bulots, or whelks, which are hidden behind the shrimp; and two kinds of clams: palourdes and the smalleramandes; tiny gray shrimp, crevettes grises, in the seashell; and, completing the circle, langoustines, which had just come into season two weeks earlier (when I wasn't eating oysters on this trip, I was eating fresh-from-the-sea langoustines and smiling foolishly, I'm sure). In the center of the plateau was a gorgeous araignée de mer, a spider crab.
Looking at this platter, you might think that I shared this with Michael ... but you'd be wrong. This was a platter for one and only one person ate it: moi. Michael had Sole Meunier, a perfect sole meunier.
I know, I know, it looks so spare compared to my generous plateau, but perfection comes in all sizes.