In the morning, we climbed the steps of Mont Saint Michel. In the afternoon, we slurped oysters in Cancale. And by nighttime, we had reached Saint Malo, a paradisiacal port city alongside the English Channel in Brittany. Monumental granite walls surround the charming historical center of a city that’s not just about tourism, despite its well-preserved historical sites and impressive seaside aesthetic. There really seems to be a vibrant local life here too, fantastic shopping, tons of bars and restaurants to choose from… While planning our Normandy/Brittany trip, Ben had mentioned “…and a galette in Saint Malo” far too many times for me to even consider eating anything else here. So, after treading the footpath along the fortified walls and peeping the folks on the beach (attempting to tan in the 16 °C Breton August summer), we stopped for a beer in a plaza and I got to searching the blogosphere for must-try galettes in Saint Malo. Because how else does one find the very best crêperie in a sea of crêperies? Skipping right the heck over Yelp, I came across “Le Blog de Lili” (yeah, seriously…), who mentioned a place called La Touline nearby. So, after downing our brews, we headed over.
This charming local favorite sits on the corner of a cobblestoned street, across from the peaceful Place de la Poissonnerie. As I had called ahead for a reservation, there was a table for two waiting for us on the terrace when we arrived. We took a seat and ordered the traditional pairing, a bottle of demi-sec apple cider with two ceramic bowls. Apparently, this is typical at crêperies. And while we’re on the topic… Around France, a place that sells crêpes is a crêperie. Crêpes are usually sweet, made with a thinner wheat flour pancake. Galettes are a slightly thicker pancake made of buckwheat flour and filled with savory toppings. In some parts of Brittany, the undisputed place of origin for both, locals sometimes refer to galettes as crêpes too. This complicates things, especially in the south and west of the region.
It’s been three long weeks since this trip, but I still sometimes picture these galettes, the bottle of cider and my man across the table from me when I close my eyes. I’ve never before tasted anything like this local Breton specialty. Of course, I have had thick American pancakes with maple syrup and Hungarian palacsinta rolled up with apricot jam or ground walnuts. I’ve even had the famous Crêpe Suzette in some French restaurant in the US. I’ve never been too enthused about either. So I wasn’t originally too excited about these galettes. But when they were brought to the table and laid out in front of me, the aroma hit me and it hit me hard. The steam rising off the freshly toasted buckwheat crêpe smells earthy, nutty and as organic as the first whiff of forest floor when you step out of your tent on the first morning of a camping trip. It’s hearty and rugged, like a fertile handful of moist black soil. There’s a subtle musty acidity there too, almost fungal. That buckwheat smell reminds me so much of my father, whose “kasha with butter” I couldn’t stand as a child. I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal. When cooked up on a flat iron grill, the black batter becomes toasted nutty brown, offering an incredible crunch on the exterior and a slightly spongy, tender dough inside. This deeply earthy dough goes incredibly well with the subtle fermented funk and mild acidity of local apple cider.
Ben – not Breton, but French, and thus knowing how to properly enjoy a galette – ordered a Harbour, which contained a classic combination of ham, egg, cheese, mushrooms, crème fraîche and smoked bacon. He also took the camera out of my hands as I stared, jaw agape, at these dishes. He snapped some photos of his galette as I finally came to and started prattling on about the aroma above described. When I finally calmed down enough to taste the thing, it was one of those eyes-closed-because-wow type experiences. A perfect unison of flavors and textures. Salty, smoky porcine zest and the crunch of the bacon over the top paired beautifully with the fresh, chilled white cream, the gummy little mushrooms and the velveteen yolk that oozed its golden liquid protein all over everything, all wrapped up in the gorgeous toasted earth flavor of a warm buckwheat blanket.
While Ben quickly chose a classic, I took a while longer and finally decided on a slightly crazier version. I did so mainly because I falsely assumed that the pancake itself would be boring, and that the toppings should be funky enough to warrant a review. And while, on retrospect, I would have preferred to order a classic with ham and egg, my own galette definitely did not disappoint either. The Les Letruns was made with the same heavenly buckwheat flour pancake filled with soubise (a rich sauce with melted onions), potato, cool crème fraîche and three big rings of a Breton sausage called Andouille de Guéméné. What is andouille? No, not the chorizo-like Cajun sausage popular in Louisiana. I’m talking about French andouille, a sausage made of 20 to 25 chaudins (large intestines of a pig) rolled up, smoked and served as a sausage. Hence the concentric rings that a slice separate into when sliced. Another awesome experience. The gamey, barnyard flavor of the andouille was beautifully complemented by the natural, caramelized sweetness of the onion, the clean cream and the beautifully earthy buckwheat crepe. Bite-sized lumps of perfectly cooked potato also offered a fantastic heartiness to the dish, the buttery smooth flesh of the spud soaking up all the excess cream and salty oil from the fried, crunchy sausage.
And finally, a sweet crêpe named the Béniguet. This was fine, but not too interesting, even with the table-side flambé action of the Grand Marnier poured over the top. The pancake was folded twice into a quadrant, filled with dark chocolate and smeared on the surface with bitter orange marmalade. Dotting the top were some grilled almonds. The combination of grilled almonds, dark chocolate and bitter marmalade with the hint of booze from the orange liqueur was great otherwise, but neither of us were really in the mood for it. We both left La Touline wishing that we had just ordered a third galette to share instead.
This trip opened my eyes wide to one of my new favorite French dishes, la galette bretonne. I had always heard talk of this thing and my curiosity had at times even slightly been peaked as to how exactly a buckwheat flour dough differed from the boring old sugared wheat dough I know too well. Now I understand. Unfortunately this is one of those dishes that don’t work without local cream, local sausage, local technique and local know-how so I assumed I’ll be hard-pressed to find it anywhere outside Brittany. I guess we’ll just have to return sometime very soon for another.