Brittany 2011: Family and Food
by Zoe Hamilton
Mot du Jour: Yec’hed mat (pronounce as though you are speaking Arabic)
Last week I learned this word while traveling in Brittany (or Bretagne) with my dad. It is difficult to say and (in my opinion) not at all as pretty as French. But the whole weekend my dad and I used it in honor of our family history, which was the goal of the whole trip, to visit the family and, not to be cheesy, relocate our roots a little bit. After the death of my grandmother a year and a half ago a big connection to France was lost in our family. And with cousins across the ocean it is hard sometimes to keep in contact. So who better to reaffirm the connection (the last time I was there I was six) than the two biggest sentimentalists (read: saps) in the family?
So with a few fabulous meals in our stomachs and a shopping trip (finally got a nice winter coat) in Paris we took the train to Rennes from the Gare Montparnasse. As I may have mentioned before I live in the Montparnasse area, which is the Breton neighborhood of Paris because the train station goes to Brittany. So naturally for a quick snack we grabbed crêpes before boarding our train, the perfect snack to get us in the mood for our arrival. At the train station we met Henri (my dad’s cousin) and went home to meet his wife (Françoise) and his son (Irwan). For dinner Henri had prepared a delicious salmon avocado salad followed by a confit de canard. Of course we had a bottle or two of champagne before dinner (in our family it being a Tuesday is enough of an occasion to break out some champagne) and for dinner Henri pulled out another bottle. He covered the label and offered my dad a taste, who affirmed that it was quite good. Only then Henri showed him the label on which he had marked the date that my dad had given it to him! I think that’s a really great system because then you get to enjoy the wine with the person who gave it to you.
The highlight of the visit with Henri came the next day when they brought us to a food and wine exposition. For a good part of the late morning and early afternoon we wandered around in a giant auditorium with different stands of wine, champagne fois gras, cheese, sausages, and crêpes trying things and critiquing them. For lunch we had fois gras sandwiches. It was great because I think we were the only tourists there. It was a real French activity and right up our alley.
We explored Rennes a little in the afternoon before having yet another great meal of Scallops. For dinner Henri and Françoise made Far Breton which is like a custard with prunes in it. It was my first trying it but my grandma used to make it so dad was really excited to have it again. Henri also pulled out a book on the history of Morlaix in which there are a few pages about (or featuring) our family for their role in the Resistance. For a bit of background my grandmother’s father and two brothers were all in the French Resistance in Morlaix. Shortly after D-Day (before Brittany was liberated) they were captured and tortured. Her father was let go because he was an officer in the First World War. There are different stories on how the younger brother, André, escaped (French friend who was working with the germans vs. german soldier who took pity on him) but her older brother Henri was killed and his body was never recovered. It was incredible because in the book there were photos of inside the prison where they were held and you can see a drawing that Henri drew before he was killed along with the writing of my great grandfather listing the prisoners from their small town that were being held there and Andrés name. Nobody knew about this until the book came out because nobody was allowed in as it is now a private apartment building.
The next day we took the train to Morlaix where we picked up the car and drove out to Locireque, a small coastal town right outside of Morlaix where my grandma used to spend her summers as a kid. My family has gone back to visit it ever since (I think this was my second or third time there). It is really the cutest windswept seaside town you ever did see. It reminds me of a French version of cape cod with the nautical culture and great seafood. We were staying in the “Hotel des Bains” which is probably the prettiest hotel I have ever stayed in. It is a huge old building on the water with a beautiful dining room, outside tables, and lounge area with a big fireplace. It is one of those places that you can just picture in the 1920s filled with beautiful people on vacation who get dressed up to go out to dinner in the dining room and take walks on the beach to discuss poetry or cricket or something. You know?
For lunch we had a fabulous meal of moules frites (mine à la crème, dad’s moules marnières) before going to see Tante Alice, the last remaining family of that generation. She was the wife of André, my grandma’s brother. Visiting her made me really sad because she is just so lonely. She was really fond of my when I was a kid so when she opened the door she said “oh there’s my girl.” Her body is really going, she has trouble moving around, but her head is all still there. She remembers everything and everyone. She spoke very fondly of Kurt and Del (my uncle and grandfather) but every once in a while would throw my grandma under the bus, they didn’t get along super well. We had brought her champagne but I laughed (and got a little sad) when I put it in the fridge for her and saw that all she had in there was some yogurt, milk, and three bottles of champagne. Yec’hed mat Alice.
After our visit (“you will come back and visit me my girl won’t you?”) we went to the end of the block to see her daughter Monique (dad’s cousin). The contrast could not have big more shocking. Monique and her husband (Hérve?) have retired but she was practically bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm as she showed us their new kitchen they are in the process of remodeling and photos of her grandchild, Elliot. They, it turns out, are the real historians of the family. Practically the whole rest of the day was spent recounting stories as we visited cemeteries, Plourin (my grandmother’s town), downtown Morlaix, and the prison. They have been going through records all the way back to the revolution. So a couple stories:
I asked in all of her research who was her favorite character she found she said Grandfather Chatal. That would be my grandmother’s grandfather (great great). He was raised by paper makers who were both illiterate. He was sent to school where the schoolmaster took him under his wing and taught him to read and write. Chatal then helped his parents quite a bit as they were very very poor. He was the assistant teacher but eventually was able to write to the academy to ask to be promoted to a teacher, which he was! He married a woman who was of quite a bit higher status than himself (she came from a family of doctors and lawyers which were very well regarded in the area at the time). But his whole life he was a very generous man. When my great grandfather was a POW in Germany during the First World War Grandfather Chatal moved in with the family to help support them.
We also learned that André and Henri Sr. (my great grandfather) were involved in several post war trials for the death of André in Rennes and Brussels. She is in the process of trying to get a copy of the testimony.
It was very cool visiting all of the places where there is just so much family history. I had been to most of these places before but I was too young (6) to really appreciate what I was seeing. For example the house where my grandma grew up and the schoolhouse below it or the war memorial where Henri’s name is written. Or the grave sits for my great great great grandparents. As I mentioned we also visited the prison. Maybe it’s because it was night and raining and there is a large tower (where they were held) but the whole place had a sinister air in my opinion.
For dinner we got crêpes in Morlaix and talked about family the entire time. It was really interesting hearing all they had learned in their research.
We woke up to a lovely morning at the Hotel de Bains but then had to get back into the car drive to Normandy to see the last cousin of this branch of the family: Michelle. Michelle is blind and the champion of, get this, blind archery for France… 3 years running. Crazy. And also kind of obscure. Even after watching a video about it and having it explained several times I’m not quite sure I totally understand. From what I gather there is a post that you can align your hand on and then you concentrate so that you align the arrow and shoot in the right direction.
For dinner with Michelle and her husband we went into Rouen where they live and ate at a very cool old Norman restaurant. All around us there were old dark exposed beams. The house was from the 1600s. It was interesting because everyone we visited (with the exception of Henri) kind of badmouthed the other members of the family for one reason or another. I guess there is that thing about family that even if you don’t like everyone (or they are not necessarily the people you would chose as your friends) you are stuck with them and bonded in a really strong way because of a shared history or tradition. Or at least that’s what I’m gathering.
We had one more day to kill before heading back to Paris so we decided to go along the Norman seaside and see what we could find. We started in Honfleur on a recommendation from Michelle and it did not disappoint. It was adorable! Tons of impossibly skinny buildings and cobble stone streets carved out along the coast. We had a fabulous seafood lunch before setting off. The plan was to drive up along the coastline in order to see the Norman coast and the small towns lining it.
We were hoping to stumble upon a cute town to spend the night and explore. However most of the small towns we found were too small: there would be a few houses and a church and that would be it. So we continued along enjoying the countryside but not really finding anything of particular interest. As night fell we decided to go into Saint Valery. It was a curious town because half of it was pretty and old and half was new and ugly. We found out later that half had been destroyed after D-Day by battles between French forces who had fallen back and fought the Germans who had been stationed there. In Saint Valery we had a little trouble finding a place to stay and ended up at a hotel that had character to say the least. The owner said he would put us in the ‘chalet’ rooms, which appeared to have been added onto the house later as an afterthought. The rooms were less reminiscent of a chalet, in my opinion, and more so of a cabin. Including the smell! My shower was in a corner of the bathroom with walls on either side of the tub coming to a point in front creating an impossible claustrophobic effect. The owner also was a chatterbox and would have talked to us for hours if we had let him.
For dinner we had seafood again and we left the next morning. I can’t say we saw much of Saint Valery other than our hotel and the walk to and from the restaurant but then again, I can’t say there was much to be seen in Saint Valery.
It was funny returning back to Paris after being away because I felt like I was coming home. It was the longest I had been away from Paris since arriving and I felt that sigh of relief when getting back to the familiar. Dad and I spent our last two nights in Paris eating well. We visited one last cousin, Phillipe, in Paris before my dad flew home. It was fun seeing them again (I was there two weeks ago by myself) and we had a very nice lunch. Food played a large role in this trip. It was a major activity and way to connect with the family. Most of our reunions took place over a meal or coffee or champagne. So Yec’hed Mat to family and good food. A bientôt.