Few places in France make a better mid-autumn destination than Roscoff, the hardy little port in the Finistère department of Brittany that’s won a global reputation for its thalassotherapy (sea-water spa treatments, which were invented here) and excellent food cooked from locally landed and raised produce, including artichokes, cauliflowers, and the sweet red onions that were once sold door-to-door by French peddlers nicknamed ‘Johnnies’ in the UK.
The passing Gulf Stream gives Roscoff a mild climate year-round, which also means the sea remains warm enough for swimming until just the cusp of winter. Overlooking the harbour, the Hôtel Brittany, which has just opened a modern annexe named for the nearby island of Batz adjacent to the original granite manor house, is ideal for a short break, too. Not only could you spend the whole day happily staring out over the port from one of the eleven serenely decorated rooms within the new wing, but there’s a spa – and one of Brittany’s best restaurants on the premises, the Brittany, where chef Loïc Le Bail has won a Michelin star for his superb contemporary Breton cooking.
With its wood-beamed ceiling, exposed granite walls, picture windows framing stunning views over sea and the harbour, and wood-burning fireplace, the restaurant has an appealingly retro atmosphere that’s brought up to date by beautiful hand-blown table ornaments of colourful glass jellyfish suspended inside clear glass and, most of all, by Le Bail’s assiduously locavore menu.
“It’s a real cuisine de terroir (cooking that reflects a particular place),” says Le Bail, adding, “The beauty of Breton cooking is its simplicity, and this comes from the fact that our fish, shellfish, vegetables and other produce are so fresh and full of flavour they make you humble,” says Le Bail.
Le Bail’s menu evolves with the seasons and varies with the catch of the day, but I had a spectacular dinner there recently on an Indian-summer evening when summer and autumn were still deliciously overlapping – beautiful local tomatoes but also the season’s first oysters. Normally, my other half and I try to order different things, but on this particular evening we both craved exactly the same meal.
Our gastronomic avarice was well placed, too, since the tiny pink prawns that began our meal had been caught just a few hours earlier and were superbly sweet and iodine-rich, a pleasure enhanced by rich salted Breton farmhouse butter and really good bread.
Next, thick fillets of lieu jaune (yellow pollock), a decidedly under-rated fish with a firm, flavourful flesh and a delicate taste that’s still bright with sea minerals, topped with local vegetables and ham in a pool of beurre blanc.
The side dish that came with the fish was a light fluffy modern take on kig ar farz (meat with pudding, in Breton), the distant Breton cousin of haggis. In the classic version, buckwheat is poached in a cloth pouch in a meat-and-vegetable rich broth, and the final dish is a combination of the three. Le Bail brightens the buckwheat with green onions, pomegranate seeds and other garnishes, and it becomes an unexpectedly compatible garnish to the fish, since it reprises another trope of the Breton kitchen, which is contrasting flavours of the armor and arbed, or sea and earth.
And for a perfectly local finale to this excellent meal, we sampled the buckwheat crêpe with strawberries and parsley sorbet and a sable Breton with strawberries, lemon verbena, rhubarb and buttermilk.
Charming service, and very reasonable prices for cooking of this quality as well.
Le Brittany: Boulevard Sainte-Barbe, Roscoff, Tel: +33 2 98 69 70 78. Web: www.hotel-brittany.com. Average dinner for two €200.
From France Today magazine