Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nantes Jaunt

I spent this past weekend exploring another corner of Bretagne (Brittany). By "exploring" I actually mean "eating my way through", à la Eric Carle's very hungry caterpillar. This trip was organized by our French office assistant who has a taste for the gourmet, so we took full advantage of all of the fresh fish, kouing aman pasteries, salted caramel, crêpes and non-Parisian prices the region had to offer.

We started in Nantes, the capital of Bretagne and the 6th largest city in France, which was cute if rather bland. With a tram system, a small "ethnic" quarter, a medieval center and six-floor white buildings with wrought-iron balconies, it felt basically felt like a smaller, cleaner Paris with less people and wider streets. Highlights were visiting the little fortified castle in the town center, where you could see an old German war bunker from the WWII occupation as well as the site where the Edict of Nantes was signed. Before leaving Nantes we payed a visit to the Île des Machines exhibit, a "robotics" museum/workshop where one can see/interact with mechanical wood artwork vaguely inspired by the imaginary universe of Nantes-ian writer Jules Vernes. The coolest robot by far was an enormous wood and leather elephant, which is big enough to fit 40 passengers for a short jaunt around the square.

Next we hopped on a bus and continued on to a Muscadet vinyard on the edge of the Pays de la Loire Departement. The couple that owns and single-handedley runs the vineyard gave us a tour of the still rather dead-looking vines and the production facilities of their award-winning wine. I learned about wine production I hadn't known previously. Apparently you don't leave the grape skins in wine (too sour) and red grapes can therefore be used to make white, rosé or red wine depending on the delicacy and time-frame of the juicing process (for example, apparently all "authentic" Champagne comes from red grapes). Even if they don't do much for the taste, however, the skins are the source of the yeast, which ferments the wine by converting sugar into alcohol until such a point that it dies from the alcohol concentration it has created. (The difference between grape juice and wine is therefore simple pasteurization, which kills off the yeast before they get a chance to start making alcohol.) Afterward the wine-making lesson we were treated to a wine tasting of a young 2009 Muscadet (sweeter, almost bubbly, and more acidic) and an older 2003 one (drier, smoother). I liked both, but opted for the older as my souvenir.

We spent the night in La Baume, a small coastal town that was pretty, though pretty much like any Maryland or Delaware beach town in the off-season. The water was still a little cold for swimming but we enjoyed a stroll along the sand to find some shells, and our five course dinner was in a restaurant literally on the beach.
Saturday started with a trip to the marshes of the Presqu'il de Guérande, where the famous "fleur de sel" sea salt is harvested by hand from seawater channeled inland and concentrated in a series of canals and shallow pools. We toured the salt pools, then visited a co-op to purchase some local food products: jams from local berries, a seaweed tartar (also harvested from the swamps), Bretagne's famous salted caramels, and of course, salt. The salt looks like greyish rock salt and is valued by gourmet chefs for its delicate flavor. I'm not going to lie, I don't quite "get" it, but considering that a wholesale bag was only a euro I figured I'd give it a try.

A later boat ride through the swamps made me nostalgic for the Chesapeake Bay, whose shallow waters, grassy duck blinds, herons and crabs are surprisingly similar to those in Bretagne (although, of course, better--Maryland pride!). We ate lunch in the fortified medieval town of Guèrande, then walked around the picturesque village of Khérinet to see the rustic houses with roofs made of swamp grass. By the time I finally got back I was gorged with gourmet food, exhausted, and highly satisfied: both to have seen a little more of the "real" France beyond Paris and to have that feeling of returning "home" attached to Paris on the train ride back.

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