Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Episode 1 The Beginnings

As you know I’m from West Cork and have lived in France for over a decade during the 1990s. I return to France whenever I can – once or twice a year at least… I have decided to share with you my experiences of French life and my passion for my adopted country. While I am not living there at the moment, I have familial and friendship ties there nevertheless. And of course, my husband being French, I remain immersed in its language and culture despite my living back in Ireland.

Comme vous le saviez je suis d’origine de West Cork (Ireland) et j’ai vécue en France pendant une dizaine d’années durant les années 90. Je retourne en France à chaque occasion présentée – une à deux fois par an au moins… J’ai décidé de partager avec vous mes expériences de la vie “à la françaiseet ma passion pour mon pays adoptif. Bien que je n’y habite plus pour le moment, je continue d’y garder des liens familiaux et amicaux. Et bien entendu, mon mari étant français, je continue d’être immerger dans la langue et la culture française malgré notre retour en Irlande.

My passion for France came about at the age of twelve when a delegation from the Breton town in the Morbihan arrived in West Cork seeking a twin town. Simultaneously, a group from that same town on a walking holiday in South Kerry / West Cork paid a visit to my native town and as we say ‘the rest is history’. Spontaneously my parents became involved; and my mother became a committee member. And so for the next twenty years exchanges took place every year – one year we host and the following year we are guests. My parents, my siblings and I welcomed families and/or individuals into our home. These cultural holidays ignited a keen interest in Breton culture but also in the French language and wider French way of life. Friendships were established, some of whom remain today. As a result of these friendships I gained my ‘ticket’ to Paris. I raised anchor and set sail to encounter new horizons in the early 1990s. It was in Paris where I immersed myself into the French language and culture as a jeune fille au pair. A suivre…

Celtic Cousins

While I am quite at home anywhere in coastal France, I must admit that Brittany holds a special place in my heart. From early adolescence, my native Castletownbere began twinning with Locmiquelic, a coastal town in the Morbihan, south Brittany. Morbihan (Mor Bihan) means ‘Petite Mer’ – ‘Little Sea’ in Breton. Every other year a delegation from Locmiquelic would visit our native West Cork fishing port. For over twenty years our family greeted between two to four guests for one week. When it was our turn to set sail for Brittany, the people of Locmiquelic would play host to their Irish guests. It was then that I felt a strong connection with France and especially with Brittany. There was an air of familiarity – Celtic Cousins so to speak. Since then, I’ve always felt comfortable in this north-westerly part of the Hexagone – a moniker the French give to their country.

In the summer of 2014 I immersed myself in the fishing port of Le Guilvinec, Finistère (south Brittany) for the purpose of my research. It was my first time visiting this coastal community and I must say that there is ‘something’ about coastal Brittany that makes me feel right at home. What strikes me is the winding coast road that meanders from the auction hall to the beach. It is delightful for any swimmer to have such a splendid beach just at the edge of the town. I frequently walked the coast road; there is something so enthralling about the sea. Whether calm or calamitous, the sea has the ability to ‘draw’ you in to its world. I admire the houses that stand tall along this road with their spectacular views. It’s my favourite part of the town. The sound of the sea is so soothing.

Going to the boulangerie, most mornings, for the baguette; getting to know local residents though various associations and participating in various events, meeting people in the streets, having the banter… There’s a sort of mutual understanding between people from Celtic regions; a Celtic language, musical traditions, and in a way being rather similar in manner. Our perspectives, our ways of seeing and being in the world as Celts, intertwining traditions and modernity.

Brittany was an independent duchy; however, there were many turbulent years during which the Breton Duchy defended its territory against the Romans, Vikings, English and the French. The Duchy came to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. His daughter Anne inherited the Duchy. In addition to ‘keeping the peace’, a lack of political stability and financial resources engendered the marriage between Anne de Bretagne and the King of France, Charles VIII. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532. Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of departments. Of course its history is a lot more complicated but that tale is for another day… 

While centuries have passed, Bretons continue to defend their Celtic roots; never giving up the ‘battle’ – which at first was political especially during the mid-twentieth century but has, in recent decades, become a cultural one. I have observed, during my many trips there, and having lived there for three years in the early 2000s, contemporary Bretons are at ease and confident with their Breton identity – with who they are. Bretons are recognised for their force de caractère – strength of character. A Breton fisher once told me that “Le fait d’être Breton est ancré en nous, c’est régional, je me sens enraciné dans l’héritage Celtique” – “The fact of being Breton is anchored within us, it is regional, I feel rooted to the Celtic heritage”. There is a sense of belonging to a collective. During my fieldwork, I become conscious that Bretons tend to experience a stronger affiliation with people from other Celtic regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, among others rather than those from other French areas. Identity is complex. Everyone experiences it differently and constructs rather distinct meanings to how sense of identity is to them.

What’s in a Name?

Back to my surname, that brings me to Baltimore, metaphorically, of course. I’d like to mention a book that i’m reading at the moment; it’s by Des Ekin, author of Stolen Village, a book that brings to light that sack of Baltimore, an intriguing story that occurred in 1631.

Back to the task in hand, the book I’m reading at the moment is Ireland’s Pirate Trail, the very name puts a smile on my face as my mom always says that the O’Driscolls were pirates; and, so they were, she is right in saying that but as a youngster it really wasn’t my ideal image of my ancestors!

Exploring our past is a great way to understanding our present, and who we are, and as such why we are…

My grandfather was a fish merchant and traded with France. My dad and his brothers were fishermen as were many of my cousins. Collectively, the family have an innate relationship with the sea and coastal environment. It’s in the blood as we say, we have salt in our veins.

You recall the sense of place I discussed in another post, an attachment that people establish with specific places, well for me, as long as I’m on the coast is what’s the most vital to me. Of course I have a strong connection to West Cork but just being able to see and feel the sea no matter where I find myself…

During my research in both Brittany and West Cork, many of the interviews and conversations held with locals highlight the importance of being in a coastal environment rather than being somewhere specific.

Thanks for joining me!