All aboard for the fair shores of France
This is the time to replenish your wine cellar, says Lucinda O'Sullivan, as she takes you on a spin around Brittany
Standing in the Salon des Vins of the French supermarkets, Geant and Leclerc, in the town of Morlaix in Brittany, just 20 miles south of the port of Roscoff, it was clear that 'le booze cruise' certainly has won a place in the hearts of Irish wine fanciers. Many of those circling the piled-high cartons of wine were clearly not first-timers. Pens and notebooks in hand, they were well prepared, ticking off their wish lists as they swooped on that 'little' Lussac Saint-Emilion at €4.15, and the likes of Sylvaner Riesling at a tad over €3 a bottle. With a bottle of Jameson being €17.45 and Pineau de Charente (selling in a Dublin off-licence at €32) being €7.99, it is hard not to be attracted by the savings.
'Where's the Picpoul de Pinet?' some lamented - it seems to be the popular plonk de jour. Others, of course, had deeper pockets, and with things on the up and supermarkets here now targeting the professional market with a new range of Bordeaux, were eyeing up the Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac 2012 at €84 and the Chateau D'Yquem at €199, or maybe even the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac Leognan 2011 at €285. In case you are worried you might miss out, they only had 162 bottles of that! Most, of course, were like ourselves, looking for something reasonable to drink on a winter night, with maybe a few slightly better bottles thrown in to impress the friends.
Although definitely more casual in the wine-buying stakes, we too have been popping over to France each September for many years now for a short-break-cum-food-and-wine experience and, this year, we sailed out of Cork to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries on their flagship, the Pont-Aven.
I hate flying and this is a very accessible way to travel as the ship departs for France at 4.30pm on Saturdays, arriving in Roscoff on the Sunday morning - at an eye-blinking 6.30am local time - returning the following Saturday morning at 10 am. This gives you five nights in France and two nights on board.
The highlight of the journey out, and a great mood- setter for the start of your holiday, is the buffet dinner in the La Flora Restaurant. You do need to book when you get on board as it is very popular with people descending on the seemingly never- ending piles of langoustines, smoked salmon, charcuterie and salads. This is followed by a main course served at the table, but the star of the show is definitely the buffet. After you have gorged on that lot, you can then tackle the array of desserts and cheeses before retiring to Le Fastnet piano bar for a digestif and then your comfortable cabin. There is also an excellent self-service restaurant, La Belle Angele, and there are spa treatments on board, as well as a cinema, a swimming pool, a duty-free shop, games and a playroom for under-sevens.
On disembarking, we drove 150 miles across the north of Brittany to the hamlet of Servon, just south of Mont St Michel in Normandy, to stay at Auberge du Terroir. It's owned by chef Thierry Le Fort and his wife Annie, and, having found it some years ago, we loved its meticulous simplicity and really good classic French food. It now has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, and receives visitors from Russia and other places all over the world, they tell me.
Our room was €78, plus breakfast at €8.50. Menus range from €20 to €45. We dined on oysters, foie gras de canard mi-cuit, pork with apples, confit de canard and rounded off with wonderful cheeses and plum tart. (Phone: +33 2 33 60 17 92).
Next day, we visited nearby Avranches, the town liberated by General Patton in World War Two and where there is a large monument to him. His success led ultimately to his breakthrough into Brittany, on to Paris and the liberation of France. Another excellent place to stay in that area is Auberge de la Selune in Ducey.
We stayed there last year when it had just been taken over by Patrice and Sandra Girres. They were planning to do it up, and they certainly have with all the bells and whistles, but still offering very good value accommodation between €70 and €85. Food is excellent with 2/3 course menus at €23/€27.50. (selune.com).
We moved westwards to Cancale and Dinard. Cancale is famous for its oysters and the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, had Cancale oysters brought to Versailles. Its port is lined with eateries, but we rather like Le Grand Large, where you can chomp happily on seafood platters served in Breton 'boats'. It also has rooms. (hotelrestaurant.hotellegrandlarge.com).
Cancale is also the home of Olivier Roellinger who in 2008 somewhat famously handed back his three Michelin stars and closed his Le Relais Gourmand to open instead Le Coquillage, a simpler restaurant at his Chateau Richieux. Aspiring cooks might also like a stint at his cookery school. (maisons-de-bricourt.com).
We moved on then to nearby Dinard, a chic town with lots of shops and opportunities to bend your credit card. We stayed that night at Manoir des Portes outside Lamballe, in a setting that was very rural, yet convenient for the motorway. It was a very pretty old rose-bedecked stone building but the gardens were unkempt and the small room smelt a bit fusty. I have said it before, but the French have a lot to learn when it comes to big modern comfortable beds. The pleasant surprise was the food delivered by a talented 19-year-old chef with a three-course menu at €30. He wowed us with flavour in a gratin d'encornet facon Provencale - squid in the most delicious sauce. (manoirdesportes.com).
The next morning, we visited the fab beach at Frehel where Hotel de Diane is a good place to stay. (Hoteldiane.fr).
Our next port of call was Paimpol, where we had earmarked Hotel de La Marne. It had recently been taken over by a young couple, chef Mathieu Le Tinier and his wife Camille, and the whole place had been modernised very nicely. The food was stunning, with menus running from €29 upwards. We chose one at €37, which included foie gras and turbot, and which ran the gamut from sophisticated canapes in the bar, through an amuse bouche to beautifully presented petit fours. It was interesting on this trip to see young chefs in rural areas moving away from traditional French fare to a more international contemporary style. (hoteldelamarne-paimpol.fr).
From there, we headed to Perros-Guirec, which is a very popular spot and where accommodation is in demand. I always like to visit NOX, an interiors shop, which has a lot of cool stuff for your maison. (noxdeco.com). We have stayed in a number of hotels in this area, including the ultra-cool five-star L'Agapa and its Michelin-starred La Belouga restaurant. Look for a sea-view room. (lagapa.com).
We also love the nearby old-style grandiose Ti Al Lannec, an Edwardian seaside mansion on the cliffs at Treburden. Owned by the attentive Jouanny family, dinner here is an occasion. Look out for barman Jean Yves, who worked many years ago in the legendary Chez Youen restaurant in Baltimore, Co Cork. (tiallannec.com).
Getting closer to home, as it were, we moved over to Carantec, a small town near Roscoff, which we like. There is a lovely beach here, with three restaurants servicing the sun-worshippers, as well as the two-starred Michelin Restaurant Patrick Jeffroy at l'Hotel de Carantec, which we have previously visited. (Hoteldecarantec.com).
We returned to the Hotel de la Baie de Morlaix as they are charming here and very tuned in to the requirements of today's traveller. We had a lovely room at €68 with a big comfortable bed, flat-screen TV, wifi and breakfast at €8.50. To top it off, there is a little outside area where we enjoyed a bottle of rose for €6! (hotel-baiedemorlaix.com).
Next door is a very traditional Bar Tabac Restaurant, which does very reasonably priced food in a colourful atmosphere. We also dined at Ty Breizh on the square, where I had a delicious poelee de coquilles St Jacques, as well as at L'Abri du Pecheur down at the port. On Thursday mornings, a fantastic food market takes over the streets, where you can pick up all sorts of regional specialities to take home. The historic town of St. Pol de Leon, very close to Roscoff, is also a lovely place to stay and here you will find Le Clos St Yves close to the cathedral and with charming hosts. (le-clos-st-yves.fr).
So, I would heartily recommend a little French sojourn - what you save on your wine and spirit purchases will more than pay for your trip.
Brittany Ferries sail out of Ringaskiddy to Roscoff up to the end of October. (brittanyferries.ie).
Irish Ferries does similar trips, sailing on the Oscar Wilde, from Rosslare to Cherbourg, up to mid-December. (Irishferries.com).