For a foodie, renting a local chef's second home is a great way to explore the rich culinary world of Tréguier, France.
We called it "karma hour," when the sun cast its pre-evening light, swathing the ancient stones of the patio in a golden pink glow. My three friends and I celebrated the hour each evening by sipping wine, nibbling on cheeses we'd bought at the market earlier that day -- and planning which market we would visit the next day. When the evening cooled and lost the light, we'd move to the kitchen or dining room inside the home, closing out another evening in the Brittany village of Tréguier, France.
Our culinary-obsessed banter was probably similar to countless other conversations that have echoed among the terrace's stone walls. Food, after all, helped refurbish the home years ago; it is owned by Minneapolis restaurateur Lucia Watson and some friends.
For all the years I'd been traveling to Paris, I never much thought about leaving it. Once I arrived in the City of Light, I had shopping, art, pâtisseries, wine, chocolate. What could possibly lure me away? I'll tell you what: the chance to pretend I lived in France.
Opening the periwinkle shutters at the front of the house, lounging in a stone-walled living room with my girlfriends, cooking meals in a tiled kitchen: That all certainly made me feel at home. The location was a plus. We got to explore a region of France new to us all.
It hadn't taken much to persuade my three other food- and French-loving girlfriends to join me. We'd all spent time online checking out the menu at Watson's eponymous Uptown restaurant (Lucia's) and then clicking on a discrete link to Le Maison de Granit, the name given the house in honor of its 4-foot-thick granite walls. It always intrigued.
That's how -- several conversations, e-mails, a meeting with Watson and a few check exchanges later -- we found ourselves in Tréguier.
West of Paris on land that pokes into the English Channel, Brittany is probably the least "French" of the country's provinces. Bretons share the Celtic heritage of Ireland, Wales and Normandy, and the area has its own Celtic dialect.
We soon learned about another idiosyncrasy of the region: the lunch buffet. During our first stop for lunch on the road to Le Maison de Granit, the waiter knew enough English to say "No limit," when he placed a bottle on the table. Not common in Paris, the buffet is alive and well in the French countryside, and in Brittany, the "all you can eat" often was accompanied by "all you can drink."
Once in Tréguier -- a Petite Cité de Caractère or "city of character" -- we found that Watson's home, like the city it is in, reflects its ancient heritage, keeping its historic charm but filled with all the modern conveniences. The townhouse (or "maison") is only 50 some yards from the port. An easy walk up a narrow street in the other direction brings you to the towers of the city walls and the cathedral, a showcase of Breton religious architecture. But Tréguier is also a working town, with five boulangeries where you can buy bread and more.
My first real taste of Brittany's bounty came the next morning when my friend Carole and I walked to the boulangerie/pâtisserie across the street from "our" French home and bought our first Kouign-amann, a buttery caramelized pastry and a Brittany signature sweet. Served warm at breakfast or later in the day at tea time, it tastes like a luscious caramelized croissant. But about 10 times better.
Another day at the nearby Lannion market, I tasted another of Brittany's inventions: a sweet crepe hot off the griddle, oozing with a salted caramel filling unlike anything I have ever eaten. Brittany is where these "pancakes" originated (not on St. Germain in Paris). Galettes are the savory variation, made with a buckwheat flour, and sometimes served with a smear of chèvre, folded, eaten out of hand and washed down with some bubbly Breton cider.
Nearby Normandy has its Calvados, and Burgundy and Bordeaux have their wines, but Brittany's beverage of choice is the locally made cider. Served in the traditional ceramic cups with the red stripe around the edge (known as a "bolee") Brittany's cider ranges from sweet and weak to dry and strong, with more than 5 percent alcohol. At Le Penalty, a bar in Tréguier, we discovered another way it's consumed. With a splash of crème de cassis, it's called a Kir Breton, a popular aperitif.
Cooking à la maison
For my friends and me, the main pleasure of staying in Watson's Brittany home was to shop at local markets for meal fixings and prepare them in a kitchen designed by a chef. The produce was its own joy. We bought such things as a locally raised, freshly plucked chicken, the brown, beautiful eggs its luckier counterparts produced, local cheeses, the sea salt that Brittany is known for and -- my particular downfall -- jars of hand-harvested honey, jewel-toned cassis confiture and paper-wrapped chunks of homemade butter.
Brittany is loaded with open-air food markets, and you can go to a different one every day of the week. Tréguier's market day is Wednesday, which is why Lucia wanted us to start our stay on a Tuesday. No one should miss the market, she told us.
She was right, of course. From the bins of artichokes (we drove by fields of them on the way to Tréguier) to the piles of radishes to the hunks of cheeses, it was an exquisite delight to browse the fresh fare -- but difficult and time-consuming to pare down our purchases. By the time we finished our dinner menu ingredient shopping, it was lunchtime. None of us could resist a bowl full of the famous Breton sausage and potato mixture that had been simmering in butter and cider -- its scent wafting over the market all morning -- from a huge cauldron.
Even with our market forays in the area, we didn't cook every night. One evening after an afternoon spent at the romantic, Italian-inspired Kerdalo Gardens, across the River Jaudy from Tréguier, we dined at Café Pesked. Watson had recommended this local establishment on the outskirts of Tréguier, and we were glad she did. It was tiny and crowded but the seafood (mussels and oysters are another Brittany specialty) was divine.
Another day we packed a picnic and drove up the Côte de Granit Rose (the Pink Granite Coast), a stretch of coastline in the Côtes-d'Armor region famous for its rosy rocks that have been shaped and carved by erosion into amazing formations -- including one that looked exactly like a bottle of wine tipped on its side.
In the late afternoon light, with the pinkish tinge of stone emerging, the four of us realized it was nearing our karma hour, and wouldn't a cool rosé wine be perfect on "our" stone terrace later?
Donna Tabbert Long writes about food and travel for the Star Tribune and other publications.