French culinary traditions are a never-ending story. Every town boasts of their own scrumptious specialties, and Michelin-starred restaurants seem to hide around every second corner. During my trip to Brittany, I made my way through local dishes very different from those I usually related to French cuisine, and fell in love with a flagship local dessert: kouign-amann.
The north-western tip of France, bathed with cold waves of the Atlantic, belongs to Brittany. Proudly different from the rest of France, Bretons have their own language, saints and favorite foods. Slightly salted butter plays the key role in their cuisine, adding to the locally grown products, what results in homely, rich culinary traditions.
Kouign-amann is one of the prime examples of Breton flavors. Pronounced kween-yah-MON, the name comes from the Breton words for “butter” and “cake.” Bretons claim kouign-amann to be the “fattiest pastry in the world,” and after just a week in Brittany, I fear that might actually be true. With wonderfully flaky, amber-yellow layers of dough mixed with sugar and salted butter, kouign-amann is to Brittany what a croissant is to Paris.
There’s no universally agreed version of the origin of the pastry. What’s quite probable, though, is that the beginning of kouign-amann was a coincidence. One of the popular stories mentions a 19th century baker from a town of Douarnenez in the district of Finistère. In a desperate attempt to save a failed batch of bread dough, he added a significant amount of butter and sugar, creating what would become a signature pastry of the region.
Multiple layers of kouign-amann’s goodness picture the character of Brittany perfectly. Thick, heavy and no-nonsense, the pastry is a perfect illustration of proud Bretons: strongly attached to their land, and often relating to the Celtic culture and hearty cuisine from the rainy British Isles than the Parisian chic (it does rain a lot in Brittany).
Variations & Authenticity
Nowadays, you can find kouign-amann in many variations. Some bakers like to put sliced fruits or pieces of chocolate on the crispy icing of caramelized sugar. But the classic, plain pastry is delicious enough, if rather hearty: I often found myself unable to eat one whole piece, and ended up sharing it with friends.
To make sure you’re enjoying the traditionally baked kouign-amann, search for the sign “Véritable Kouign Amann de Douarnenez. Fabrication artisanale inventée vers 1860 à Douarnenez,” which means “Authentic kouign-amann from Douarnenez. Artisanal produce invented around 1860 in Douarnenez.”
While in Brittany, head to one of the following bakeries to indulge in the butter-and-sugar feast:
- Quimper: La Fleur de Sel, 1 quai Neuf
- Locronan: Boulangerie Le Guillou, Place Eglise
- Rennes: Pâtisserie Le Daniel, 13 rue de la Monnaie
- Douarnenez: Boulangerie des Plomarc’h, 20 Rue des Plomarc’h