Oysters and Mussels and Frites, oh my!
Stepping off the plane at the somewhat miniature airport in Rennes, in France’s northwestern most region of Brittany, I immediately inhaled as deeply as I could, expecting to literally breathe in the butter from the air. But what I swallowed was more like manure. The odor of livestock was unmistakable. Instead of salted butter caramels, I got cows. We learned shortly thereafter that the 22nd annual Salon International d’Elevage (lnternational Trade Fair for Livestock) was well under way just down the road. This gathering of 610 cattle, 170 sheep and perhaps a few goats and horses would clearly explain the smell. However, we had other aromas in mind – of the fresh creamy butter we’d soon be tasting and of the caramels made from it. But at that very moment, we followed our noses to the salty smell of the sea in Cancale.
We hopped in our adorably round Peugot rent-a-car and headed north to the coast. It was still early in the day, so we were able to watch the fishermen in their bright yellow, oversized raincoats, busy at work on the oyster beds. Little did we know that they would be but a faded memory only hours later when the tide came in. We walked through the oyster market just steps away, which is a handful of market stands with the day’s catch of various sized oysters and mussels. Our plan was to sit on the sea wall, our feet dangling above the water, eyes squinting at the sun as we slurp down a dozen oysters from the market, and gaze out at the iconic Mont St. Michel in the distance. This, however, was replaced by frigid hands cupping bowls of fish soup in order to warm up and get out of the rain. Brittany weather doesn’t exactly qualify as predictable.
La Mère Champlain, a restaurant and hotel sitting on a corner across from the docks, steps from the lighthouse, looked as if it were filled with locals, always a good sign. We settled in to a table overlooking the fishing boats and had an enormous menu of seafood and regional specialties to choose from. Oysters were a given, so it was a large platter of assorted sizes from 1 to 5, 5 being the smallest. I have to admit, and I apologize to anyone I will offend, but I don’t actually like oysters. So you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of firsthand tasting notes here. That said, with the oyster docks steps away, and the speed at which Olivier finished the dozen, I can confidently vouch for their freshness and sublime taste of the sea.
We both ordered mussels to follow; for Olivier it was the classic Moules Marinières, made with white wine and garlic. For me, I was curious to try the Moules au Cidre, being in Brittany where sparkling apple cider is the drink of choice. The mussels were piled high in a light yet unctuous sauce, really very sweet, but not achingly so. I got the taste of apples from the cider right away, and I could tell there was cream in the sauce. The waitress assured me that that was it. A very simple recipe she said, just cook down the cider and add cream. But I was not satisfied; it was just too good, so sweet and truly addictive. I went back into the kitchen and ending up chatting away with the chef, Philippe Le Quillieu, a young, friendly Breton originally from Vannes in the south. He told me of his travels, working in restaurants all across the world, including Catalyst in Hull, Massachusetts. His dream: to add New York to his resumé.
What’s in the mussels, I asked! Well, it turns out he makes an actual caramel, using cider vinegar and sugar. To that he adds a few bottles of cider (brut) and then a whole lot more than just a dash of cream. And that’s it. Still simple, but awfully good. And understandably sweet. I felt I could have ordered another round.
But alas, there were still crêpes and kouign amann and those salted butter caramels to taste. I’ll be in touch with Chef Le Quillieu, and hope to get a scaled down recipe to whip up these sweet mussels at home. Stay tuned…