In 1970s Somerset, we had an excellent local baker - of bread. But, I don’t think I’m being unfair in describing the selection of cakes offered by bakers in the 70s as mildly disappointing. Doughnuts, whilst acceptable fresh, rapidly lose their allure with the passing hours i.e. by the time we got them. Chelsea buns and hot cross buns at Easter (reluctant cakes) are difficult for a child to comprehend, let alone get excited about. We weren’t offered much more. Lardy cake was good, if a little strange; as were eccles cakes. Happily, home-made fruit cake and sponges were divine.
Things improved over the years. The cream and the custard slice, became available at our local shop, adding a taste of continental glamour to our lives, although looking back, the cream substitute was rather sickly. The Belgian bun and Danish pastry made the 90s more tolerable, but for years the Channel proved an effective barrier to colonisation by continental fancies.
Incidentally I went to Belgium a couple of years ago with the intention of trying an authentic Belgian bun. But, no matter where I went or who I questioned, and I included small children in my survey who should know about these things, nobody had heard of or, on hearing my description, thought they might like to try a Belgian bun. I don’t think the Belgians are a bun eating nation at all. We have been badly misled.
Being taken to Brittany for a wedding as a young teenager in the late 1970s, out of the barren, cake wilderness that was the UK, was a revelation. Practically every village had a boulangerie/patisserie selling delicately textured perfection.
I’m not suggesting that the cakes in Brittany are the best to be found anywhere. I’m not in a position to judge, being insufficiently travelled. But artisanal excellence is out there in many small towns and villages.
As in the rest of France, as far as I know, Viennoiseries are a popular and excellent start to a special day. Brittany has its own specialities less suitable for breakfast save Bretagne far which makes an excellent breakfast. More on that later.
Viennoiseries are often, slightly incorrectly referred to as pastries (and I probably shouldn’t call them cakes, but I like the word cake). They are, in fact, a dough, with yeast and rising and other such un-pastry-like and indeed un-cake-like characteristics. Incidentally, the name somewhat suggests that they are not at all an original product of France. I intend, one day, to visit Vienna and satisfy myself that I’m not missing out, although after my nasty surprise in Belgian I am braced for disappointment. Whatever the quality of the products in Vienna, no one can deny that the French have embraced the concept, trained the practitioners and make a thoroughly good job of it.
The usual Viennoiseries found in most Bretagne boulangeries would be: croissant, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, torsade (or tortillon or in some cases suisse, in others a suisse is quite different) and croissant au amande. The croissant and pain au chocolat need no introduction, but the torsade might be less familiar. When baked as I prefer, it’s my favourite. A thin, long twist of dough interlaced with chocolate, hopefully slightly gooey in the centre.
The difference between boulangeries is marked. I have made mental notes concerning the establishments we pass going up and down the coast. This variety should be celebrated. I avoid buying bakery products from supermarkets which are putting the traditional boulangeries out of business. Why the French government allows this on-going disaster is a mystery. I can’t think it would hurt the supermarkets much to stop selling bakery products, preserving the boulangeries which are so much part of the shrinking heart of small towns.
Whatever the difference and whichever establishment you favour, the boulangeries are a real leveller. For 1€10 spent in a small town somewhere in Brittany you can enjoy as good and expertly crafted a pain au raisin as the President of the Republic might be enjoying in Paris.
Where to eat your warm Viennoiserie? At the other institution struggling on at the core of small French towns, the tabac. You don’t need to buy tobacco (note supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell tobacco which keeps these little cafes in business -so why not the boulangeries?), but you can buy a coffee instead for the reasonable price of 1€30 -1€40. You can have it with milk or sometimes a cappuccino, but that’s usually as far they go in the fancy coffee line. You can also have hot chocolate. But, they do small coffees really well with a proper, hissing machine and this is the best option. In the civilised manner of the French, no tabac owner would dream of objecting to you eating your Viennoiserie, purchased in another establishment, with your coffee.
The tabac is a splendid institution in its own right. It manages to find a sweet spot that cafes and pubs have failed to achieve in the UK. A combination of cafe and bar where all are welcome and the purchase of a coffee endows you with the right to hang around for as long as you want. Perfect for the older, leisured classes without deep pockets.
Bretagne far is an egg custard baked with a dusting of flour in the tin giving it the hint of a brown skin. In some boulangeries that have a tea-room attached (Les Sables d’Or near Erquy and Camaret sur Mer are fine examples) far is served with cream and often a dash of chocolate sauce for a world beating breakfast owing nothing to the Viennese. Brittany boasts other regional cakes, but as yet I have little experience of them.
Daily briefings, if required, on the local boulangeries are all part of the service at sanssacados and bikes are provided for that delicious morning expedition.
A tip for beginners at French: The French don’t have, but take food, and they often use the present tense for events in the future. (We do as well, I see the Queen on Friday for example.) So Bonjour …. Je prends un croissant, s’il vous plait is how you might ask for a croissant.