A Bite of Brittany: Taking the ferry for a foodie break in France
From fresh seafood to Michelin Stars, the ferry to France is a ticket to foodie paradise, says Caroline Crawford.
Brittany may be famous for its wild coastline scattered with medieval towns, but it is fast becoming a gastronomic hub with a host of culinary delights - from Michelin-star restaurants to casual cafes and artisinal brewers making the most of fine local produce.
Taking the ferry means you can tour the region by car, offering tourists the perfect opportunity to sample this French smorgasbord. Sailing from Cork with Brittany Ferries, our tasting trail began pretty much as soon as we left the boat.
Roscoff is an oft-overlooked stop for ferry travellers, with many bypassing it immediately as they venture south. But this picturesque town is a far cry from its busy ferry port. Gathered around a 16th-century quay, a warren of narrow cobbled streets is dotted with cafés and restaurants. These offer the perfect opportunity to soak up the local atmosphere while enjoying some classic French fare - including the locals' favourite dish, stuffed artichoke.
Roscoff is proud of its heritage and local produce, especially its famous pink onions. The old harbour town is the home of the Onion Johnnies, the men in striped tops and berets who for many are the typical image of Bretagne. Thousands of these men and boys travelled from the port to the UK selling onions, becoming a stereotypical French image made famous by English cartoonists.
However, the workers never actually wore the famous tops, which were reserved for seamen at the time. A festival (the fête de l'oignon rosé) is held each August in honour of the onion, with a parade through the cobbled streets.
In Roscoff, the impressive Hotel Le Brittany (hotel-brittany.com) is home to Le Yachtman, a Michelin-star restaurant. The chateau was originally located in southern Brittany, but the ancestors of the current owner had it moved brick by brick in the 1900s. It now offers weary travellers utter luxury and incredible dining in an 18th-century manor house.
Head chef Loic Le Bail offers a refined version of Breton cuisine, focusing on seafood specialities. He believes the success of the restaurant lies with local produce. "Each morning, I see my fisherman sail out. I call him up and work my menus around the fish he has caught."
It's a relationship which works well for the restaurant, with innovative lobster dishes proving a huge hit with diners who enjoy the delights as they watch the sun set over the bay.
While Roscoff holds plenty of charm, the nearby Ile de Batz, a 15-minute boat ride away, oozes it. This quaint little island, home to 600 inhabitants, truly is a hidden gem, boasting exquisite beaches, leisurely walks and great views from the top of the lighthouse.
The main attraction is its exotic garden, Jardin Georges Delaselle, which has more than 2,000 species of plants from all five continents. But the real charm of the island can be found while cycling or walking along its narrow streets finding a hidden beach, enjoying the views from the 11th-century Chapelle Ste-Anne, or climbing the 198 steps to the top of the lighhouse for 360-degree views and the perfect picnic spot.
Leaving Roscoff behind and driving southwards along the Brittany coastline gives an opportunity to find hidden treasures of your own. Each little village seems more charming than the last, with sidewalk cafés offering rustic French cuisine and classic wines for next to nothing.
For those looking for finer dining options, the town of Ploudier sees foodies flock to another Michelin-starred eatery at the La Butte Hotel and restaurant run by Nicolas Conraux (labutte.fr). From seafood delights, like abalone and lobster, to foie gras and their famous buckwheat pancake, the restaurant mixes fine dining with a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere.
Guests here can enjoy cookery classes, and the restaurant also hosts an 'épicerie' (fine food boutique) featuring products used by the chef. You can also make the most of the stunning scenery in Abers by exploring by bike - with a gourmet picnic packed by the hotel.
Driving on towards Crozon gives the perfect opportunity to stop off and sample the local seafood at Viviers de Terrenez, a small seafood wholesaler perched on the side of a cliff. It does a roaring trade in shellfish and homemade smoked trout. The tiny business sees a busy mix of tourists stopping off for a seafood feast and local restaurateurs who call daily to pick up their produce.
Further on, at Maison du Cidre in Argol (maisonducidredebretagne.fr), Hélène Gibiat and Jean-Baptiste Rollo are changing how we view cider. The couple set up their organic farm seven years ago, producing cider that tastes nothing like the mass-produced versions.
"People think they know what cider tastes like, but most have never tasted real cider that isn't full of additives and sugar. We want to change that," says Jean-Baptiste.
The couple also run an organic crêperie on the farm where guests touring the orchards and cider press can enjoy lunch.
Brittany's rugged 3,500km coastline makes it ideal for sailing trips. The coastline around Crozon boasts some of the most spectacular beaches - so plentiful that it's easy to find a quiet piece of paradise, even in the summer. Discovering these gems by boat adds to the delight and, from the port town of Morgat, there are ample opportunities to do just that. Ile Vierge is considered one of the most stunning beaches in Europe thanks to its crystal-clear water surrounded by steep cliffs. While it can be reached by a one-hour walk through a field path, sailing there at sunset only adds to its beauty.
Erwan Rognant runs gourmet sailing trips to the cove, allowing guests to take the helm of a 12m catamaran or just sit back and enjoy a feast of oysters and local seafood delicacies washed down with Maison du Cidre brews, while enjoying the sun setting over the Crozon peninsula.
Erwan set up Catavoile29 (catavoile29.fr) a few years ago to make a living from his passion of sailing. He enjoys showing visitors that such experiences do not have to cost the earth.
"This amazing scenery is on our doorstep and we have some many local producers offering fantastic food and drink, it's all right here," he says.
What to pack
Whatever you like! Well, within reason... luggage is only limited by the size of your car boot on a ferry holiday (helpful for wine on the return journey, too). Otherwise, pack light raincoats along with the buckets and spades - it has been known to rain on this particular peninsula.
Brittany Ferries’ Pont Aven offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France, taking just 14 hours (it leaves from and returns to Cork on Saturdays). Onboard facilities include pool and bar areas, two cinemas, shopping malls, spa treatments and free Wi-Fi. Sailings start from €132pp return, based on four sharing. See brittanyferries.ie.
Where to stay
Brittany Ferries (021 427-7801; brittanyferries.ie/holidays) also offers camping holidays in France from €240pp for 14 nights, based on a family of four sharing (subject to availability). Book before February 7 to avail of a 15pc discount. See brittanytourism.com for lots to see and do on the peninsula.
Read more:Brittany: We'll carry on camping! Basking in Brittany: Taking the ferry for the most nostalgic of holidays